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Higher internet costs could be on the way for low-income Pa. residents as federal subsidies run out

by Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA |

A cell phone tower in a rural Pennsylvania area.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Thousands of Pennsylvanians could soon be hit with higher internet bills when a federal program that gives a discount to low-income households starts to run out of money next month. Unless Congress approves more funding, April will be the last time many residents receive the benefit in full.

The looming end of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) comes as Pennsylvania starts to spend an unprecedented surge of federal investment intended to bring high-speed internet access to every U.S. resident.

The state Broadband Development Authority last week approved more than $200 million in grants to internet service providers. And that’s just the beginning: Pennsylvania will receive another $1.1 billion in federal broadband funding within the next two years. But the end of the ACP could hamper the commonwealth’s efforts to ensure that residents can afford the service offered by these new networks.

“If we want to achieve a world where everyone has internet service, we need a program like the ACP,” said Drew Garner, director of policy engagement at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. “Affordability is the main thing keeping people offline, and that’s especially true in rural areas where a lot of this infrastructure money is targeted.”

The program gives most eligible households a discount of up to $30 per month on their internet bills. Once it ends, many participants will likely face difficult financial choices. A federal survey released earlier this year found that more than three-quarters of participating households said losing the benefit would force them to switch plans or drop internet service altogether.

The ACP also factored heavily into state plans for spending the new federal funding, including in Pennsylvania, said Kate Rivera, executive director of the Technology Learning Collaborative, a Philadelphia nonprofit that helped coordinate efforts to sign people up for the program. If the ACP runs out of money, she said, “I don’t think anyone really knows yet how to replace that.”

Despite efforts by the federal government and internet service providers to warn people about the end of the program, some residents will inevitably be caught by surprise when they find themselves facing higher-than-expected internet bills, Rivera said. Even if Congress approves funding for a similar program in the future, she said, that breach of trust could make it harder to enroll people.

The grants awarded last Wednesday to create or expand Pennsylvania broadband networks will bring high-speed internet to 40,000 homes and businesses across 42 counties, state officials said. Some projects could be completed before the end of the year.

Most of the grants will go to major internet service providers: Two Verizon subsidiaries will receive a combined $78 million, or almost 40% of the funding available. Comcast will receive almost $62 million, or roughly 30%.

The broadband authority gave smaller grants to local companies and nontraditional providers, including a regional electric cooperative in the Northern Tier and a nonprofit in the Southern Alleghenies region created by the local planning commission to sidestep a state law that makes it harder for local governments to build their own broadband networks.

The price of the proposed service was one factor state officials weighed when awarding the grants. Recipients must also offer low-cost plans to eligible customers, although the state has yet to negotiate the specifics. But without the federal subsidy, even the low-cost options may be too expensive for some families.

A bill that would renew funding for the ACP has some bipartisan support in Congress, but has not been brought up for a vote. Some Republican lawmakers have questioned the program’s effectiveness and whether participants would actually lose internet service without the assistance.

U.S. House Democrats are trying to force a vote on the bill through a long-shot legislative maneuver. In Harrisburg, three Pennsylvania House Democrats have introduced a bill that would create a state version of the program. It has not yet been brought up for a committee vote.

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