A US government program that subsidizes fees for Internet service for low-income households will stop taking enrollments Thursday and could shut down by April, leaving people who depend on the service for remote employment without a way to pay for broadband access.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is currently used by nearly 23 million Americans, allowing them to save more than $500 million per month on internet bills. It is set to run out of a money in a few months; consumers have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 7 to be approved and enrolled with a service provider to take part.
The program, which is limited to one monthly service and one device per household, provides up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. Eligible subscribers can also receive a one-time discount to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers.
Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told Congress last week that without further funding, Thursday’s enrollment freeze is necessary to slow the depletion of financial resources and reduce volatility in the program.
Remote workforce in limbo?
A spokesman for the program declined to comment on how many subscribers use ACP for remote work, which surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and has held fairly steady even after stay-at-home restrictions ended.
A Gartner global labor market survey found that even though workers were given the all-clear to return to the office in recent years, the number of hybrid workers — where people work at least one but fewer than five days in the office — stayed relatively flat, according to Tori Paulman, senior director analyst, Digital Workplace for Gartner Group.
The end of ACP could leave some remote workers in limbo, leading them or their employers to seek alternatives. Remote workers need reliable broadband service, and even in an ubiquitously connected world, that’s not always an option for people, depending on their income or service areas.
In fact, the biggest challenge for remote and hybrid workers since the pandemic has been to keep all employees connected to organizational culture and ensuring equity across their work experience, Paulman said. Stipends by companies to employees to this end “vary widely from company to company and have been a contentious topic since the initial pivot home some years ago,” she said.
The fate of the program is currently in the hands of Congress; lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Representatives are now considering separate bipartisan bills that would provide billions more to keep ACP running.
In the meantime, organizations continue to hash out what managing a remote and/or hybrid workforce looks like to them, recognizing that “there is no one-size-fits all model for every worker and every team,” Paulman said.
The good news for the program and those using it is it has high-profile supporters that want to see it continue. Chief among them is US President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has urged Congress to provide additional funding for the ACP. The program is key to the president’s commitment to providing more universal access to broadband-speed internet.
“For President Biden, internet is like water,” Biden advisor and assistant Tom Perez said during a briefing on Monday. “It’s an essential public necessity that should be affordable and accessible to everyone.”
Verizon, Comcast and AT&T — among the 1,700 internet service providers that have been notifying customers about the potential end of the program — also called on Congress to extend the program.
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