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A conservative case for the Affordable Connectivity Program


Broadband connectivity has proven to be a socio-economic equalizer, overcoming disparities and distance to deliver education, health care, employment opportunities, and much more. We saw its necessity amplified during the pandemic when the internet was used for almost everything, from ordering food, educating our children, conducting business, to connecting with loved ones. We quickly came to understand that broadband access has become a critical part of our lives, especially with faith-based organizations. Yet, for many Americans, especially in this difficult time of high inflation, broadband costs can be outside their monthly budgets. 

To address this discrepancy, Congress created a broadband subsidy to help families in need. Specifically, the Emergency Broadband Benefit was initiated by a bipartisan Congress and subsequently converted to the Affordable Connectivity Program (or ACP). Unfortunately, ACP is set to run out of funds as soon as early 2024. For conservatives who are rightly concerned about traditional government subsidies, I humbly suggest that extending the ACP by appropriating additional funds for the program is well within our economic principles, even when we absolutely must shrink overall federal spending. As a committed conservative with a long history on communications policy, let me explain.

First, there is bi-partisan agreement that access to broadband can be a key tool for citizen self-sufficiency and upward social mobility, and because of this, ensuring every American has access is a national policy priority. For example, online GEDs and college courses not only promote greater career options for recipients but also lower the costs for overall education investments and help minimize participation in other social programs, such as welfare and food benefits. This is a key reason why the federal government is investing to expand broadband deployment throughout our nation. However, more broadband deployment does not necessarily equate to greater adoption. Broadband will remain inaccessible to poorer families if affordability is ignored.

Second, broadband adoption reduces governmental costs to function and opens doors for businesses. Online options can reduce agency budgets, including costs for paper, publication, staffing, and facilities, not to mention reducing regulatory and notification burdens. It also increases opportunities for businesses, who gain a wider reach for their products and services.

Lastly, let’s recognize that American poverty is not isolated to urban areas but distributed throughout our country in so-called Red areas and Blue ones. The opportunity gap resulting from unequal broadband access impacts all regions. That is why every American neighborhood and small town hopes to see their broadband access protected and expanded.

ACP is our best solution to address broadband affordability so far. Its primary attribute — what conservatives have fought for — is that the benefit flows to the consumer. This avoids the inefficiencies inherent in indirectly subsidizing providers. This funding mechanism also enables greater accountability, avoiding automatic spending increases, and importantly keeps Congress, not bureaucracies, in the driver’s seat. Additionally, ACP is technology neutral, something recently rejected by the Biden administration in their deployment programs. This means recipients can select the broadband technology that fits their circumstances, ensuring more efficient usage and preserving competition. 

Thanks to decades of conservative advocacy, broadband is a proper example of successful market-oriented, light-touch regulation. Without ACP, the left will claim that heavier regulations like price controls are the only way to ensure affordable rates. State regulators in New York already attempted to illegally set speed and pricing requirements for ISPs. This will curtail innovation and slow broadband expansion plans. More importantly, such overreach could force providers to raise overall rates in other areas, especially in Red States where no such regulations would be adopted.

This year policymakers will need to decide what to do as ACP’s money runs out. My advice would be for Congress to add additional ACP funds without tinkering with its consumer-focused and technology-neutral structure, allowing for adjustable eligibility criteria as needed. If Congress fails to act, Members will see 15-plus million American households lose out. For the politically minded that would likely not be well received heading into the 2024 election cycle.

ACP represents our best available means to promote and sustain internet adoption for consumers in need, which should overcome my fellow conservatives’ traditional concerns. Congressional action to extend this program in 2023 should be a priority.

Michael O’Rielly served as Federal Communications Commission Commissioner from 2015 to 2020. Prior to joining the agency, he served as a policy advisor in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip, led by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Tags Affordable connectivity program Broadband access Broadband in rural areas Broadband subsidies connectivity Digital divide in the United States Michael O'Rielly Poverty in the United States rural broadband

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