More than 900,000 N.C. households to lose affordable internet if federal funding is not renewed

Ken Vandine and Ashlyn Vandine test new operating systems on refurbished computers at the Kramden Institute in Durham, N.C. on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Photography by: Alexandria deRosset.


By Alexandria deRosset
UNC Media Hub Student Correspondent

If Congress does not increase funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, over 900,000 households in North Carolina will lose access to affordable internet by the end of April.

The program, which launched Dec. 31, 2021, provides eligible low-income households with a discount of up to $30 per month on internet service. Households on tribal land receive a monthly discount of up to $75. Participants can also receive a one-time discount to purchase a new tablet or laptop.

“For some, the ACP is their only line to the internet; that’s the only way they can afford the internet,” said Lacey Dickerson, the outreach coordinator at the Kramden Institute in Durham, North Carolina.

A stack of donated laptops is ready to be sent to customers at the Kramden Institute in Durham, N.C. on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Photography by: Alexandria deRosset.

Kramden is a nonprofit organization that works to improve digital literacy by providing low-cost refurbished computers and computer certification and skills courses. As Kramden’s outreach coordinator, Dickerson focused on enrolling people in the ACP.

However, with funding for the program set to expire in April, affordable internet is in jeopardy for many North Carolinians.

According to the North Carolina Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, the ACP is a key part of closing the digital divide, the gap between those who can access technology, the Internet, and digital literacy training and those who cannot.

“A high-speed internet connection is really critical to every walk of life now,” said Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity at the North Carolina Division of Information Technology. “The ability to learn from home, work from home, look for a job outside of your community, access telemedicine services, and be entertained—everybody needs that connection.”

In North Carolina, Denny said the average internet subscription service costs $60 per month.

Internet subscriptions should cost less than 2% of a household’s monthly income to be affordable, according to the Federal Communications Commission. For 1.3 million North Carolinians, $60 per month is too high, Denny said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that folks can access [the internet] and can afford it,” Denny said. “If the ACP goes away, that job is going to get a lot harder.”

Congress provided $14.2 billion to establish the ACP, making it the largest internet affordability program in U.S. history. The program was created as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and was a follow-up to the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which helped households afford internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, the FCC announced the affordability program would wind down without additional funding from Congress. The ACP stopped taking applications Feb. 7, and by May, funding for the program will be gone, shifting the full cost of internet subscription services back to customers.

According to the FCC, over 23 million households use the ACP to get online. Before the program, over two-thirds of those households had inconsistent internet connectivity or none at all, according to a 2023 survey by the FCC.

Almost one-third of survey respondents said they would go without internet services if the ACP ends. According to the FCC, many survey respondents said they would take money from other bills or cut other expenses, like food or gas, if their monthly internet bill were $30 higher.

Households with an income that is at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines or who participate in federal assistance programs like SNAP or Medicaid were eligible for ACP benefits before the program stopped taking applications in February. Community nonprofits like Kramden worked to get eligible households signed up for the ACP.

In March 2023, Kramden was one of four programs in the state to receive a grant from the FCC to support its enrollment efforts. In December, Dickerson, Kramden’s outreach coordinator, held a pop-up event in Durham to enroll more families in the ACP.

“Some folks I just helped sign up within the last couple months. That was before we knew the ACP wasn’t going to be refunded,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson was originally hired to help more people sign up for the ACP. For her, the end of the program feels like whiplash, she said.

Recently, she has had to call program participants — some of whom had just enrolled —  and tell them that their internet subscription will no longer be covered.

“It makes me want to throw up, if we’re being honest,” Dickerson said. “It also kind of breaks the trust that we’ve already established in the community.”

The end of the ACP comes with no clear next step for households relying on the program for affordable internet.

When the program ends, participating households will see their bills increase by at least $30 per month. Internet providers are required to send ACP participants at least two notices that the program is ending, how and when the end of the ACP will impact their bill, and that customers can cancel their internet service after the program ends.

“It’s going to be a jump scare,” Dickerson said. “And that panic is slowly going to set in, like, ‘How am I gonna afford this next month?’”

Meanwhile, some members of Congress are pushing to provide more funding. In January, a bipartisan group of representatives in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, which would provide an additional $7 billion in funding for the ACP. Congress has yet to take action on the legislation since it was introduced.

Here in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has been stressing the importance of funding the ACP to North Carolina’s representatives in Congress, Denny, the deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity, said.

“This really needs to be a federal action, if we’re going to get the job done,” Denny said.

It would cost the state of North Carolina $27 million per month to provide internet access to the 900,000 households enrolled in the ACP. That’s a huge expense, Denny said.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is a bipartisan one and the solutions thus are bipartisan as well, so I’m encouraged by that,” Denny said. “That said, Congress is struggling to do a lot of things right now.”

Congress can choose to act on the bill and put more money into the ACP.

“It’s a matter of prioritization,” Denny said.

Some internet providers in North Carolina offer cheaper plans for low-income households.

For example, according to the company’s website, Verizon offers a low-cost internet plan starting at $20/month. AT&T has a low-cost plan, starting at $30/month. Both companies accept ACP benefits and have not announced changes to their low-cost plans if the ACP ends.

Volunteer David Young runs final tests of digital literacy programs installed on computers that will be donated to schools at the Kramden Institute in Durham, N.C. on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Photography by: Alexandria deRosset.

“Our hope is that there will be funding set aside and sustainable funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program as we move forward,” Trey Rabon, the president of AT&T North Carolina, said.

Still, everything is still being determined. For families who rely on the ACP, losing access to an internet subscription means losing access to telehealth, remote learning, job opportunities and more.

“The digital divide has always been there. But I don’t think people really understood how impactful it was until the pandemic,” Cyndy Yu-Robinson, executive director at Kramden, the Durham-based nonprofit, said.

Yu-Robinson said Kramden enrolls most of its customers in the ACP as seniors, retirees, or low-income families.

Yu-Robinson said it is difficult for many of the people Kramden serves to navigate the ACP enrollment process or follow up with internet providers about bills.

One of those people is Mari Howerton, a 74-year-old who spent months on the phone with her internet provider trying to get the ACP discount before finding out she still needed to complete the application.

“Well, why didn’t you say that two months ago?” Howerton said. “It has just been crazy.  And then I get [the ACP discount] and then this is the end, so I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to maneuver everything.”

The waiting game is frustrating for households relying on the ACP and people like Dickerson, working to improve internet access.

“Really, all we can do is just try to give [ACP participants] the resources and make them feel empowered to make the decisions that are best for them financially and for their family,” Dickerson said.

Participants are spread across rural and urban areas of the state. In Durham County, where Kramden is located, over 24,000 households use the ACP. In Wake County, 53,970 households rely on the program. In Mecklenburg County, 77,246 households are enrolled.

Rural households in North Carolina are enrolling more than originally predicted. However, fewer rural households are enrolled than urban households, according to a study from the Benton Institute of Broadband and Society.

According to the Benton Institute’s study, over 217,000 rural households in the state were enrolled in the ACP as of June 2023.

Rural areas of North Carolina need more internet infrastructure than urban parts of the state have. In those unserved and underserved locations, even the households that can afford to pay for high-speed internet cannot access it because the infrastructure is not there.

The state is using money from two federal programs to close this gap. The first program called the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, or BEAD, is part of the same Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that funded the ACP. North Carolina has $1.53 billion in BEAD money that it plans to use to build more broadband infrastructure and support digital literacy and skills training.

The state will also use $971 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding it received during the pandemic to fund broadband deployment. Internet providers submit their plans to the state, and the most qualified projects will receive money to build broadband infrastructure.

“We’ve got to both get new service in areas that have gotten nothing and upgrade service in areas where it’s slow or unreliable,” said Denny, the state deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity.

Denny said that $400 million in state funding has been awarded to projects to build broadband infrastructure that will serve 150,000 homes in North Carolina.

“In the next year, someone will be able to turn on a modem,” Denny said. Someone will be able to do their homework or have that doctor’s appointment from home.”

Change like that can have ripples for families across the state. However, for families struggling to pay bills to afford the internet, broadband infrastructure may seem less essential.

“When you factor in some of the internet providers who don’t offer services to the rural population, taking the ACP away from them means taking their internet access away,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson is worried about the sudden price jump’s impact on households enrolled in the ACP.

“All I can see or kind of predict is just a lot of folks and households are going to be struggling,” Dickerson said.

UNC Media Hub is a collection of Hussman School of Media and Journalism students who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR endeavors to support and share the work of UNC Media Hub student journalists.

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