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In my household, the internet might be the single most important utility. That’s saying a lot when you consider water and electricity. Whether it’s television, ordering food, buying stuff for the kids or a thousand other things, everything we do is through the web. I can’t imagine having to run out every time we need diapers. Take a second and think about your own life if the internet was taken away. It’s hard to imagine.

Thankfully, in my family we can take the internet for granted. The monthly cost is not financially burdensome for us. Though, for countless Americans, the cost of the internet is problematic. In 2021, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Among other things, the legislation established the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) which provides qualifying households up to a $30 monthly discount on internet.  According to a recent survey by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), before participating in the ACP, 22% of enrollees did not have internet and 25% only had access through their phones. About 20% of participants are 65 and older, according to CNN.

This program has been critical for older Americans by improving their access to finances, health care, enabling better communication with family and friends, and combating social isolation. That’s what makes what I am about to share disappointing.  In January, the FCC announced that the ACP is running out of funding.  The program has stopped accepting new participants and existing enrollees could soon lose their access to discounted internet.

A recent American Association of Retired People (AARP) study reported on the ACP’s impact on older adults (50+). The study used 12 participants and obtained information through interviews, video diaries and in-home observations. The study found participants used the internet to help with daily chores, income generation and learning, employment, and socialization. Kristi, an ACP participant from Washington State said, “(Without the ACP program) I won’t be able to do my laundry. I won’t be able to shop or pay my bills that is all set up right now. I won’t be able to listen to my podcasts which is a huge form of entertainment for me. I won’t be able to download books and have eBooks or audiobooks. I won’t be able to have access to my bank account. . . If all of that goes away, I’m stuck in the stone age. . . I can’t imagine not being connected as I age. It is unthinkable.”

The New York Times recently reported ” on Phyllis Jackson, a retired administrative assistant from Monroeville, Pennsylvania, who signed up for internet access through the ACP. Jackson uses the web to pay bills, buy clothing, look up cooking recipes and learn about her medications. The articles reported that Jackson was “not sure if she could afford internet service after the program ends. She said she would most likely have to purchase fewer groceries and reduce her electricity use to cut expenses, but her monthly rent is set to increase by $50 next month.”

This problem has caused Congress to respond with a proposed legislative fix. In the House and Senate, legislation was introduced called the “Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024” with bipartisan support. This bill appropriates $7 million for the extension of the program. The White House also has requested $6 billion to extend the program’s longevity. The legislation also has bipartisan support among voters. Public Opinion Strategies and RG Strategies released a poll in December that found the ACP was supported by 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents and 96% of Democrats.

Sadly, the fate of the legislation is murky. Having Congress increase government spending can be a herculean effort. Any lapse in funding for this program would be devastating for enrollees. The FCC survey reported that 48% of ACP participants would switch to a more economical plan with slower speeds and 29% would drop internet service altogether.

Making matters more frustrating, the program provides benefits to the economy, according to an article by Blair Levins from Brookings: “The end of the Affordable Connectivity Program is almost here, threatening to widen the digital divide.” For example, the ACP helps strengthen the economy by increasing employment rates and earnings. In addition, telehealth has been demonstrated to bring down the cost of health care.

The ACP brings down the price of the internet for people with limited incomes. It also benefits the economy and brings down the price of health care. Renewing the program should be automatic, like many other government programs. Sadly, that is not the case. With such bipartisan support, it’s time for Congress to prioritize getting additional funding for this critical program. Helping connect people with the world is a basic utility.

Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior ServicesClick here to read more from Evan Carmen.