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As Federal Connectivity Programs Sunset, Internet Access Remains Critical


At the end of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which was designed to give low-income households a discount each month on their internet bill, even offering a one-time coupon of up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. Pell Grant recipients or those who qualified for free school breakfast or lunch were eligible for the ACP.

The program emerged as a way to help families remain connected to workforce and educational opportunities as they moved online. In May 2021, the FCC established the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) Program, offering similar discounts specifically for schools and libraries on wireless connections, hotspots, routers, modems, laptops, and computers.

Eventually, the ACP supported more than 23 million households across the country. But at the end of May, as Congress failed to confirm its continuing funds, the ACP program officially shuttered. Similarly, the ECF sunset on June 30. Experts say this will have a negative impact on students and potential students as they embark on postsecondary journeys.

Dr. Darris Means, an associate professor and executive director for rural and community-based education at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said the loss of these programs will have a tremendous impact on low-income households and areas across the country.

“What's really important to know is that this cuts across rural communities, urban communities, suburban communities, across the entire country. This program was making internet services more affordable, particularly as we were moving and seeing increased demands for remote learning as well as remote work,” said Means. “Being able to provide people access to those opportunities and resources needed to do their work, to engage in their own learning and in school – I think it's a significant loss with the ending of this [program.]”

Dr. Darris Means, associate professor and executive director for rural and community-based education at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.Dr. Darris Means, associate professor and executive director for rural and community-based education at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.An FCC spokesperson said that, with the ending of the ACP,  low-income households might be eligible for another federal program called Lifeline, which can offer a lower amount of monthly relief on connectivity bills. But that program does not fully replace ACP, as some households that qualified for ACP will not qualify for Lifeline. The spokesperson said 77% of current ACP households told the FCC in a survey that losing this benefit will disrupt their service, forcing them to change their plans or even drop service entirely.

“Remote learning offers a lot more flexibility for students to engage in their education or continue their education, particularly students who are maybe working full-time, students who are caretakers of either parents or family members or children,” said Means. “While the college, university, or school may have internet access, it doesn't mean that students always have these resources and services in their own home. That can impact learning or make learning more difficult when you're trying to engage in resources that are online.”

According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one in five U.S. households have no access to the internet in their homes, roughly 24 million households. While the majority of those told the NTIA they had no interest in moving online, another 18% said they simply could not afford the resource.

At North Central State College (NCSC), a two-year institution in Mansfield, Ohio, executive director of strategic and institutional transformation Dr. Tom Prendergast said NCSC tries to address affordability from a “10,000-foot level to reduce out-of-pocket costs to students.” They offer a large-scale laptop loaner program to their students. While Prendergast said NSCS does not have one specific program to address the ending of ACP, he said he hopes that the institutional efforts to cut costs “frees up funds for our students so they can continue to have access to home internet.”

UNITE, Inc., a nonprofit group working to increase college access for Black students in rural Chambers County in Alabama by connecting them with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other postsecondary opportunities, recently received a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand their work. Dr. Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and law at Alabama State University and on UNITE's board of directors, said when working with rural students, he has commonly found that many were completing college applications using their phones while they were at school, as they lacked access to desktop computers and wireless connections at home.

“You can only imagine how that puts students at a disadvantage, not having access to the internet to complete the college application — the errors and typos that could potentially happen on the cell phone versus if you’re at a computer with Wi-Fi,” said Smith. “We’ve also noticed that, if they don’t have wifi, they have to do everything college related while they’re in school. That puts a student at a disadvantage, because if you want to get access to funding and scholarships, it's almost impossible to only have the opportunity to do that within the school hour, because you're taking classes and you're doing your schoolwork.”

UNITE's new funding will provide after-school programming for students, which will extend their time to access wireless and technology at their schools. Ultimately, affordable access to wireless at home can make all the difference in a student’s education and life, said Means.

“It's not just connectivity, it's opportunities,” said Means. “And that’s what higher education is supposed to help people do — access more opportunities.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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