This story is part of, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.
Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday that 10 million households have signed up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a program that provides low-income Americans with a subsidy to help pay for broadband service. The subsidy was made possible through the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed last year.
In remarks at the White House, Harris noted it was an important milestone as President Joe Biden and his administration work toward closing the digital divide and ensuring every American has access to high-speed affordable broadband service. Biden put Harris in charge of his initiative to close the digital divide last March, sending a signal that he viewed getting Americans access to affordable high-speed internet as a top priority.
"In the 21st century, high-speed internet isn't a luxury, it's a necessity," Harris said. "Our world has moved online, and that is why from day one, the president and I have fought to make it easier for everyone to access and afford high-speed Internet."
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act carved out $65 billion to connect Americans to broadband. Roughly $42 billion of those funds will be used to build new infrastructure in places that are currently unserved or underserved by broadband. But $14.2 billion has been dedicated to making broadband more affordable through the Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes the cost of broadband. The program, which is administered by the Federal Communications Commission, provides qualifying households a $30 per month discount on their monthly broadband bill. Households on tribal lands can get a $75 per month subsidy. Enrollees can also access a one-time $100 stipend to purchase a computer or tablet to access the internet.
The FCC launched the program at the beginning of this year. It's replacing a previous subsidy program called the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which was established during the COVID-19 pandemic by Congress to help cover the cost of broadband for low-income households and households that experienced a loss of income due to the pandemic. Through that program, the FCC allocated a $50pera month subsidy to low-income households and anyone who had been affected by the pandemic.
As the FCC transitions away from the EBB program to the new ACP, there are two big notable changes. For one, the subsidy will now be $20 per month less than what it had been under EBB. The second big change is that the ACP is available only to low-income households.
To qualify for the ACP subsidy, households must show their income is below 200% of the 2022 federal Poverty Guidelines. Families or individuals already receiving federal government benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also commonly known as food stamps) and Women, Infants, and Children, federal public housing assistance, Medicaid, the FCC's Lifeline program or any number of tribal specific programs are eligible for the benefit. Students receiving Pell grants are also eligible.
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, who implemented the EBB program and has overseen the transfer to the new ACP, said the pandemic made it "crystal clear that broadband is no longer a nice-to-have; it's need-to-have for everyone, everywhere."
But she said it also showed how many Americans really struggled to pay for broadband service.
"Given how important this service is for day-to-day life," she said in her remarks at the White House, "nobody should have to choose between paying for gas and groceries and paying their broadband bill. We can fix this. The really good news is that we are already working on it."
The cable industry's trade group NCTA, which supported the ACP as part of the infrastructure package, applauded the milestone. It also touted its members' efforts to provide inexpensive broadband for low-income Americans. The most well known of these programs is Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which offers broadband for $10 per month and has served more than 10 million subscribers since it was started in 2011.
"These collective public-private efforts are making a real difference in closing the digital divide," said Michael Powell, head of NCTA. "We remain committed to the mission of connecting all Americans to the internet through these programs plus our efforts to build new networks in areas that don't yet have service."
Closing the digital divide
The digital divide is a problem that's dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent by the federal government each year to get more Americans connected, the FCC estimates that at least 19 million Americans don't have access to broadband. Given the poor quality of the maps the government uses, even the FCC admits this is likely an undercount. The White House estimates that as many as 42 million Americans lack adequate and affordable broadband access. And it claims that half of those people don't have access because service is unaffordable.
The issue took on new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of Americans were forced into lockdown. School children needed the internet to attend school. Adults, whose jobs allowed for it, were forced to work from home. And millions of Americans accessed health care remotely via the internet.
But for many Americans a lack of infrastructure and the high cost of the service meant they couldn't access this essential service. Many experts point out that closing the digital divide isn't just about getting broadband access to rural communities that lack it but about ensuring digital equity. This is especially true for communities that have historically been redlined and left out of high-speed access. Digital redlining is a term used to describe when broadband providers purposefully leave low-income customers on slower, legacy broadband infrastructure while upgrading infrastructure in wealthier communities.
Creating digital equity also means ensuring that broadband service is affordable for all Americans, regardless of whether they live in rural parts of the country or urban or suburban areas. Harris said the ACP will help address this issue.
"Every person in our nation and every parent, no matter how much they earn, should be able to access high-speed broadband internet," she said. "We are fighting to make sure every person has that opportunity to build something for themselves and for their families by making the essential technology of the 21st century more affordable."