The federal subsidy to reduce internet bills for nearly 250,000 Colorado households is winding down and funding is set to run out by April. But the first deadline is Wednesday at 10 p.m. when local internet providers must stop accepting new customers.
“We will take applications to the very end,” said Brieana Reed-Harmel, broadband manager at Loveland Pulse, the city’s municipal internet service. “They are still trickling in little by little every day.”
Loveland Pulse currently has about 500 low-income customers enrolled in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, a $14.2 billion program that launched two years ago to help low-income households get online for school, work, telehealth appointments and more. Reed-Harmel isn’t sure what will happen next, but for now the municipal internet provider has a massive yellow banner on its site to notify its current ACP subscribers that the funds will run out in April.
With the program in limbo, there’s hope that alternative funding can be found. Loveland Pulse already subsidizes the service on top of the ACP contribution. But Reed-Harmel said that’s uncertain to continue if ACP money runs out. Customers would no longer see the automatic reduction in their bill and would have to pay for service.
But it’s also not just about the money, she added.
“We’re not exactly sure how we’re going to handle that because we rely on the federal system, the national qualifier program, to help determine who is qualified and who is not. Without that in place, that’s one of the biggest barriers for us to be able to stand up our own program,” she said. “How do you determine what the qualifications are, who’s qualified and then actually verifying them?”
ACP launched in early 2022 to subsidize internet service for low-income Americans. It was inspired by the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit, a pandemic-driven initiative that provided a $50 monthly subsidy to households eligible for Lifeline, SNAP, free and reduced-price school lunch, WIC or other government-funded programs. The national verification system would vet applicants, and funding was paid directly to the internet providers so consumers would just see a $30 discount on their monthly bill, or up to $75 a month for households on qualifying tribal lands.
Companies from Comcast and Charter Communications to smaller local providers joined the program, with some handling all the paperwork for eligibility. Others, like Loveland Pulse, discounted its $45 starter plan even more to make sure those users could get internet for free.
According to Colorado officials, nearly 800,000 households were eligible. But not all took advantage of the offer, which users could use to offset the cost of mobile broadband service, cable or other internet service. There was concern that subsidy wouldn’t last and users would lose access. Consumers also had to use internet providers that participated in ACP, which including many internet providers in Colorado but not all.
Eight months into the launch, only 23% of eligible Colorado households had enrolled. As of Jan. 1, just 32.7% of eligible Coloradans had enrolled in ACP.
But those 247,747 Colorado household represent $7 million in monthly ACP payments from the federal government. Nationwide, more than 22.5 million households were enrolled as of Jan. 1 and receiving more than $650 million a month to reduce their internet bills, according to Universal Service Administrative Company, which manages the program. Without that funding, some households might no longer be able to afford service.
“The impact on Colorado is huge,” said Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office. “Our ACP enrollment numbers have been steadily increasing every week, enrolling 5,000 households at the peak. We are not on the decline of this program, we are on the incline. Now that ACP is winding down, thousands of Coloradans in both rural and urban areas won’t have this opportunity. It feels like a big step backward.”
Some internet companies do offer discounts for lower-income households. Comcast has lower-priced plans, such as Internet Essentials, which start at $9.95 per month. The company supports extending ACP but will direct its customers appropriately if ACP ends, said spokeswoman Leslie Oliver.
“Comcast will communicate clearly and consistently to our potentially affected customers around the possible conclusion of ACP funding and consumer support. We have multiple options for lower-income consumers to get to high-speed internet,” she said, adding that 650,000 Coloradans have used its Internet Essentials service.
The state is getting a massive cash infusion later this year to tackle broadband equity through the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, but that won’t be ready by April, when the Federal Communications Commission expects funding to run out. To prepare for ACP’s demise, the FCC set Feb. 7 as the last day for new households to register and contact their preferred internet provider. Those who are approved or already in the program will continue to receive the discount until funds are exhausted. But once the program ends, the FCC recommends consumers talk to their internet providers for other options.
There are two similar proposals in Congress to extend the funding by $7 billion for 2024 but those haven’t moved very far since their introduction Jan. 10. If additional funding is approved, the FCC will provide guidance on how the program will continue.
“Congress is really the one that has control over this,” Reed-Harmel said. “They control the purse strings, but there seems to be a mixed appetite for extending this program into the future. So that’s what we’re telling our residents right now. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
SCAM ALERT: The Colorado Broadband Office warned that scammers trying to take advantage of the ACP deadlines are advertising paid tutorials and other “offerings” to mislead eligible consumers on enrolling in ACP. If you believe you’re eligible for the ACP discount, use the national verifier to enroll: GetInternet.gov
There’s still time to enroll:
- Check eligibility at GetInternet.gov or call the ACP support center 877-384-2575
- After approval, eligible users must also contact their internet provider to complete the sign up before 10 p.m. MT on Feb. 7.
- MORE: ACP wind-down FAQ
Type of Story: News
Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.