Federal internet discount set to expire this month

Published 5:27 pm Thursday, May 2, 2024

Western Tidewater residents receiving discounted internet through the Affordable Connectivity Program could find themselves paying full price when the federal credit ends this month.

The $14.2 billion Congress allocated to the ACP in 2021 as a component of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more commonly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will run out by May 31 unless lawmakers vote to continue the program. The ACP, which provides households earning within 200% of the federal poverty line with $30 monthly discounts on internet bills and a one-time $100 credit toward the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers, stopped accepting new applications on Feb. 7.

According to the Universal Service Administrative Co., an independent nonprofit designated by the Federal Communications Commission to oversee ACP enrollments, 2,776 Isle of Wight County households, or 18% of its 15,196 census-estimated households, and 397 in Surry County, or 11.5%,  had enrolled by Feb. 8.

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Nationwide, more than 23 million people, including more than 470,000 Virginians, had enrolled by the same date.

April was the last fully funded month. Existing enrollees are still receiving a $14 partial credit this month.

“If Congress does not act, hundreds of thousands of Virginians and millions of Americans across the country will lose access to this vital program,” states a Feb. 28 letter by U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., to the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations.

U.S. Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., whose congressional district includes Isle of Wight County, gave bipartisan support by co-signing Spanberger’s letter.

U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., whose district includes Surry County, and four other Virginia Democrats – U.S. Reps. Donald Beyer Jr., Bobby Scott, Jennifer Wexton and Gerald Connolly – also co-signed.

Other Republicans – among them Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash. And Bob Latta, R-Ohio – are pushing back, alleging in a Dec. 15, 2023, letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that “the vast majority of tax dollars have gone to households that already had broadband prior to the subsidy.” A May 1 White House news release disputes the claim, contending more than two-thirds of U.S. households had inconsistent or no internet service prior to the ACP.

“This number is even higher for surveyed households residing in rural areas,” the White House contends.

Meanwhile, Charter Communications, the area’s dominant internet service provider, is stepping up with its own discount to offset the loss of the ACP if the federal funding expires.

Charter is offering a free Spectrum Unlimited Mobile line for one year, valued at $29.99 per month, for Charter ACP customers. For the month of May, Charter customers enrolled in the ACP will additionally receive a partial credit of $15, or up to $35 on tribal lands, on their May statements.

Charter declined, “for competitive reasons,” to disclose the exact number or approximate percentage of its Western Tidewater customers enrolled in the ACP.

Charter maintains the potential loss of the ACP will have no impact on the company’s regional broadband buildout across Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the city of Suffolk.

Charter broke ground in mid-2022 on the $37 million expansion of high-speed internet availability in rural areas of Western Tidewater not already served by cable modem. Completion of the buildout is scheduled for 2025. Charter said it was ahead of schedule as of March.