Supporters of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program launched a campaign Thursday to preserve funding that runs out in April and threatens to disconnect more than 95,000 low-income Maine households from the internet.
The $14.2 billion federal program started in December 2021 as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It provides discounts up to $30 per month toward internet service and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. It also offers one-time discounts up to $100 to purchase digital devices.
Evelyn Lewey has witnessed the benefits of the federal program among members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. She was one of several Mainers who spoke in support of the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024 during an online news conference Thursday.
Lewey is a digital navigator who works to connect low-income members of her Down East community to the web. In the two years since the program started, she has helped to connect many isolated and disabled shut-ins and others, including some who previously didn’t even have email addresses or digital devices.
Now, she said, these people are FaceTiming with family members, attending telehealth sessions with physicians and connecting with government and community resources they never had access to before.
And recently they are calling her, fearful that they will lose the subsidy and be disconnected from the internet they have just begun to enjoy. Losing the subsidy might force them to drop the service or cut spending on food, heating and other vital costs.
“My phone is blowing up,” Lewey said. “I think a lot of people fell through the cracks before the ACP program. I’m afraid now they’re going to lose it and we’re going to have so many setbacks.”
Just over 236,000 of Maine’s 580,172 households are eligible for the program, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization. The institute’s website shows that among the households eligible, 97,186 (41.2%) are enrolled and receiving subsidies totaling $2.9 million per month.
The ACP Extension Act includes a request for $7 billion, which is projected to keep 22.8 million households nationwide enrolled through the end of 2024. What would happen after that, especially with Congress deadlocked on many issues, is unclear.
Supporters of the extension bill, including the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the National Digital Equity Center, launched the “Don’t Disconnect Us” campaign Thursday because that’s when recipients will begin receiving notices that their subsidy will be ending.
Internet providers have been instructed to stop enrolling new subsidy recipients on Feb. 7. Funding runs out April 30.
For Kerem Durdag, CEO of GWI, an internet provider in Maine and Vermont, the pending loss of ACP funding is an unfortunate coincidence.
Maine has begun to invest $272 million from the federal infrastructure act to expand high-speed internet to 94,000 rural homes and businesses that have little or no access. Maine’s allocation, part of a $42 billion package aimed at delivering high-speed connectivity to every corner of the United States, is the highest among the New England states.
If the ACP subsidy dries up, Durdag said, the internet would become exclusionary just as strides are being made to expand access. Durdag is fighting against that.
“What we have is a societal responsibility,” Durdag said. “We believe (access to) the internet is a human right.”
Tyler Fields is your internet guru, delving into the latest trends, developments, and issues shaping the online world. With a focus on internet culture, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, Tyler keeps readers informed about the dynamic landscape of the internet and its impact on our digital lives.