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Locked out from access: The end of a federal program would enhance digital divides in west central Illinois

Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio

The FCC's Affordability Connectivity Program is winding down. The end of the program could lock out access to affordable internet for thousands of west central Illinois residents.

Around 10,000 households in west central Illinois depend on $30 a month federal subsidies to afford broadband internet service.

Those subsidies help ensure low-income families, senior citizens, and others struggling to afford internet have the reliable service they need for employment, healthcare, education, and more.

But unless Congress approves additional funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program soon, those subsidies will slip away.

Those working to improve digital equity in west central Illinois say ending ACP would worsen digital divides in the region.

“I know consumers are frustrated. They don’t know what to do,” said Josh Averbeck, professor of communication and director of the Social Media Lab at Western Illinois University. “Those of us who were trying to help them are a little lost on what we can do.”

The Federal Communications Commission launched the Affordable Connectivity Program in 2021.

Because of the funding issue, the program stopped accepting new applications on Feb. 7 – and its last fully funded month is April.

Amid the funding uncertainty, a survey from the National Digital Alliance shows how heavily people are depending on the program.

77% of ACP subscribers said losing the ACP benefit would disrupt their service by downgrading their plan – or make them drop their service entirely.

More than half of rural respondents to the survey said they had no internet service prior to ACP or relied solely on mobile internet service.

Challenging rollout

Despite the clear benefits of the program, there have been enrollment challenges.

One issue was making people aware of the program — and another was the somewhat complicated application process.

David Amor, broadband coordinator for Knox County, said there was no county-level program set up to promote ACP, so much of that was left to internet providers.

In Knox County, 3,155 households were enrolled in the program as of late last year. But many more were eligible and perhaps just becoming aware of the federal program as ACP was pulling the plug on new applications.

“The timing of this was really unfortunate,” Amor said. “There’s a major effort in process at the state level through the Illinois Office of Broadband to address digital equity issues.”

For instance, Western Illinois University got state funding to promote ACP through events and outreach in a nine-county region.

Jessica Ayamyiya, a WIU graduate student in public health, was hired as a graduate assistant to help Averback with those efforts.

“My main role involved promoting the ACP to various social media platforms and helping Josh organize events,” Ayamyiya said.

Ayamyiya also worked a helpline to assist people with questions about the program and the application process, which first required determining eligibility by entering their information – such as social security numbers – on the FCC website.

That deterred some people from participating.

“Another challenge was people concerned that the information was going to be leaked out,” Ayamyiya said.

The number of households participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program as of December 2023.
The number of households participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program as of December 2023.

Bipartisan support

Averbeck said given the problems with enrollment, followed by the program winding down prematurely, the people who benefit from ACP are frustrated and feel locked out from having access.

“Because getting through this program was such a hurdle for them, they feel really disenfranchised by the process in general,” Averbeck said.

Another frustration for Averbeck is that there actually is strong bipartisan support to extend funding for ACP.

“But it just isn’t being acted on for political reasons given the election cycle,” Averbeck said. “I am unfortunately a little cynical that it will be acted upon because of the election cycle, that anything that’s going to be beneficial is just going to have to wait. And that’s too bad.”

Across the 17th Congressional District – which stretches from Rockford to Bloomington and includes parts of west central Illinois – one in five households gets assistance from ACP.

And that's just the households that went through the process of enrolling and are receiving the subsidies. Many more could be eligible.

Rep. Eric Sorensen, D-17, told TSPR one of his top priorities is making sure funding for ACP gets extended.

“Unless Congress comes together to renew the program, 57,954 of our neighbors, including working parents, students, and seniors could lose access to reliable and affordable internet,” Sorensen said.

Meanwhile, internet providers like Comcast are notifying ACP subscribers that the program could be ending – and telling them about other options the company has for lower-income consumers.

But they want ACP to continue, too.

“We continue to urge Congress and the White House to renew ACP funding and keep these important resources available to the millions of consumers across the country who are using it to get and stay connected to broadband,” said Amanda Vallejo, Senior Director for Region Communications.

Amor, too, wants people to be prepared for the end of ACP and to know about other options, in case funding doesn't come through.

“There’s still an FCC lifeline program, for instance, which offers a $9.25 subsidy,” Amor said. “That’s a lot different than the $30, but might make a difference.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.