Over 1.7 million Texas households could lose access to affordable, high-speed internet this month as a federal subsidy that helps low-income Americans pay for broadband services comes to an end.

The Affordable Connectivity Program provides a $30 monthly discount on internet service for eligible low-income households, and a $75 monthly discount for households on tribal lands. The $14.2 billion program, which launched in 2021 as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, helps 23 million American households save money on their internet bills.

The program expired at the end of April after Congress did not pass legislation extending funding but some households could receive partial discounts through May, with no benefits available in later months.

The big picture

The average high-speed internet plan costs $81 per month, according to WhistleOut, a company that compares telecommunications plans.

In 2022, nearly 7 million Texans lacked broadband access, according to the Texas Comptroller. This “digital divide” may be caused by a lack of broadband infrastructure and other barriers like affordability, limited digital skills or access to digital devices.

“1.7 million Texans were a part of this program and that means access to education opportunities, it means access to telehealth, it means access to workforce opportunities and small business opportunities,” said Molly Weiner, the local and regional planning director for Connected Nation Texas, a broadband advocacy nonprofit. “Losing that connection is really difficult for communities. ... We know that having physical access to infrastructure is important, but it’s not the only component that's keeping folks offline. For a lot of families, they're making difficult choices about bills to pay.”

Last year, Texas lawmakers allocated $1.5 billion to the new Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund, which will be used to develop broadband and 9-1-1 services. The state is also set to receive $3.3 billion in federal dollars to help connect residents to the internet.

Why it matters

Almost three-quarters of ACP enrollees said they used the internet to schedule or attend health care appointments and 48% said they used it to complete work or apply for jobs, according to a December survey conducted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Broadband advocates also highlight that “vulnerable populations” will be particularly impacted by the termination of the program. Over 10 million Americans over the age of 50 are enrolled in the ACP, and nearly half of ACP households are military families, the White House reported.

“For families with school children, the ACP has also played an important role in addressing the homework gap,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in an April 2 letter to Congress. “As the pandemic made all too clear, there are many students who struggle to keep up with their assignments because they lack the broadband required to complete schoolwork at home. The ACP has helped many of these students avoid the need to sit outside fast-food restaurants and in library parking lots just to access a free Wi-Fi signal to do their homework.”

U.S. lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill to fund the ACP through the end of this year, but it faced pushback from some Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. In a December letter to Rosenworcel, Cruz and three other lawmakers accused the Biden administration of “reckless” spending and said most households already had broadband subscriptions when they enrolled in the program.

The FCC survey found that 47% of ACP households and 53% off households in rural areas said they had zero access to the internet or relied solely on mobile service before receiving the subsidy. Additionally, 77% of respondents said they would have to change their internet plan or drop internet service entirely when their benefits expired.

“Connectivity is incredibly expensive, especially in rural areas. Rural areas happen to be some of the most impoverished with the most expensive options,” said WhistleOut telecommunications expert Sherri Riggs. “So this is really going to negatively impact people in situations like that, and $30 goes a long way in terms of keeping people connected.”

One more thing

Some ACP users may qualify for the FCC’s Lifeline program, which offers a discount of up to $9.25/month for certain low-income households and $34.25/month for households on tribal lands.

Some cell phone service providers also offer mobile hotspots or in-home internet for little to no additional cost, Riggs said.

“A lot of community institutions like schools and libraries offer public access to the internet, so I think families are going to have to start thinking about other ways the internet is accessible,” Weiner said. “And of course, that just provides a whole new set of barriers for folks getting to places and using these... publicly available hotspots and Wi-Fi during the times that they are available, [which] may be less convenient than having that connection in your home that you can be using all the time.”