February 13, 2024
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) has been a transformative force, connecting more than 23 million households. It helps low-income families harness the power of broadband and increase their participation in the digital economy. It’s a true unicorn among public policies, attracting the support of 4 out of 5 Americans. Yet, despite the program’s massive success, the ACP is on life support. In mere months, it could run out of funds without quick action by Congress.
This sobering reality is widely understood in Washington, D.C. Receiving far less attention, however, is a solution hiding in plain sight: rolling the ACP into the Universal Service Fund (USF), which supports the communications needs of low-income communities, as well as rural health, schools, and libraries. This fresh approach would allow our commitment to connecting communities to continue uninterrupted. It would bring greater accountability to Big Tech. And it would create a stable, permanent source of funding that would safeguard the program from the uncertainties of the annual appropriations process.
Here’s how we achieve this goal:
Step One: Maintain Connectivity
Congress abandoning ACP funding a mere two years into its existence would be profoundly disruptive to the country’s digital affordability and equity goals. Immediate action is necessary on Capitol Hill to provide stop-gap funding to keep the program operational while a permanent fix is put in place. With timely legislative leadership, these long-term reforms could be achieved in one to two appropriations cycles.
Step Two: Modernize Universal Service Funding
The foundation of permanent reform lies in the long overdue modernization of support for the USF. The USF has been and will continue to be the source of the nation’s commitment to ensuring low-income households, rural Americans, and their health, education, and library facilities all have access to modern communications.
When the USF started, this meant voice telephone service. Decades later, the funding mechanism continues to rely heavily on landlines – something nearly two-thirds of Americans have abandoned. I’d say this funding approach is the equivalent of a beeper in a broadband world, but it’s more troubling than that. The combination of rising program costs over the years and a dwindling base of customers footing the bill has led to an unsustainable burden on landline customers, especially aging Americans.
Step Three: Bring Big Tech to the Table
Here’s the best part. Funding for both the ACP and USF can be stabilized for the long haul in one fell swoop by bringing Big Tech to the table as long-overdue contributors to the nation’s shared commitment to helping low-income families get – and stay – online.
Alphabet (Google’s parent) alone has a market cap of nearly $2 trillion – roughly twice that of the top 10 companies contributing roughly 77% of all universal service funding combined. Yet Google and others in the Big Tech pantheon like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon contribute not a dime. These dominant Big Tech companies that benefit financially from the connectivity that USF makes possible should contribute to our shared goals of connectivity and affordability.
Policymakers have long explored ways to hold these companies more accountable for their dominant market positions. Contributing to the nation’s effort to provide affordable and universal connectivity that is the foundation of their financial success is a great place to start. The FCC needs the legislative tools to do so, and there is growing momentum for this on Capitol Hill. Congress should give the FCC a bright green light to proceed.
Step Four: Streamline and Simplify
A modern funding formula can secure the future of both the ACP and USF programs by spreading the financial and social responsibility more equitably across the internet ecosystem.
Once these building blocks are in place, we should merge the ACP into the USF as one collective, coordinated national commitment to connecting our communities. While there’s no shortage of issues vying for attention in today’s news cycle, this policy fix deserves a higher profile and priority. With 23 million connected households at risk and nearly 80% of the country lining up in support, unwinding this policy knot could deliver one of this town’s most meaningful real-world deliverables of the year.
The fate of ACP offers a telling gut check on whether our nation remains committed to our shared goal of connectivity. We should all resolve to work collectively and urgently together to ensure our nation’s answer is a resounding yes.