Unless Congress acts, 900,000 North Carolinians could lose access to affordable internet

Despite bipartisan support, Republican leaders in Congress have blocked additional funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which will run out of money on May 1. Without it, most families in the program will lose a vital utility.

April 30, 2024

Cardinal & Pine by Michael McElroy

Since late last year, North Carolina elected officials have sent several letters to Congress, urging lawmakers to preserve a federal program that makes the internet more affordable for low-income residents.

The letters have gone unheeded. 

The program, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), will run out of money on May 1, putting more than 900,000 North Carolinians at risk of losing internet service, a utility as crucial to a sustainable quality of life as light and water.

The ACP helps residents enrolled in the program save at least $30 a month on the internet. Without that supplement, many—if not most—of them will have to disconnect their service, advocates say. 

The problem is especially dire in rural areas.

Left Behind

The Biden Administration has made it a priority to close the digital divide, investing some $3 billion through the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in North Carolina alone. Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly have also announced dozens of federal and state grants to bring high-speed internet access to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in rural areas. But that brand new broadband won’t mean much if residents can’t afford it. 

“I can run fiber right up to your front door, but if you can’t afford the cost of service, you’re still going to get left behind,” Nate Denny, North Carolina’s deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity, told Cardinal and Pine last year in an interview about how the grants will help bring high-speed internet to Warren County.

A lack of reliable internet is not just a matter of convenience. Without reliable internet, rural residents can’t work, apply for jobs, study, pay their bills, or simply live their lives. 

According to a study by the N.C. Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, the digital divide means a lack of telehealth options in many rural areas, which leaves many residents unable to “access …  basic health care services and … specialists like cardiologists, because of distance and limited provider availability.”

‘An essential, transformational requirement’

A bipartisan group of NC House Members, including Democratic leader Robert Reives and Republicans John Bell, Jason Saine, and Jake Johnson sent the latest urgent letter to Congress last Friday (April 26.)

“North Carolina has the largest rural population in the United States, with roughly a third of iindividuals living outside urban areas, a total rural population of 3.4 million people,” the lawmakers wrote.  

“For the rural parts of our state to flourish, whether in the mountains to the west, the coastal plain to the east, or the Piedmont in between, connection to broadband is an essential, transformational requirement for growth.”

Cooper, who has also made expanding broadband a priority in his eight years in office, sent similar letters in November and again in January. President Biden has urged Congress to act, as well.

North Carolina, Cooper wrote, was among the biggest participants in the ACP.

The failure to extend it could also disrupt the broadband installation projects across the state’s rural areas, according to a report from the US Senate Joint Economic Committee. 

“If funding expires and subscribership drops,” the Committee wrote,” it could also jeopardize future broadband infrastructure deployment, as providers require certain subscribership levels for these investments to be profitable. Failure to meet these thresholds could result in financial disaster for companies and job insecurity for employees.”

Bipartisan push

Congresswoman Deborah Ross and Congressman Wiley Nickel, each of whom represent parts of Wake County, said in separate emails to Cardinal and Pine that they too had been trying to get their colleagues’ attention on the issue.

“Despite broad support in the House, the Republican leadership continues to block consideration of legislation to extend this critical program,” Ross, who sent her own letter to House speaker Mike Johnson, told Cardinal and Pine. “I recently joined my Democratic colleagues in calling for robust funding for the ACP so North Carolinians can continue to get and stay connected to affordable broadband. I’ll keep doing everything I can to fully fund the ACP and close the digital divide in America.”

Nickel said the program had helped nearly 55,000 households in his district alone. 

“For months, I’ve urged leaders in Congress to pass additional funding to keep the Affordable Connectivity Program up and running,” Nickel said in his emailed statement. 

“It’s imperative that Congress comes together to renew this program that hardworking North Carolinians rely on.”

Whatever the obstacle, the demand for action crosses the political divide. 

In their letter to Congress, the bipartisan group of NC House members wrote in their letter that reliable internet was a thread that connected several ideals.

“Let us come together in this pivotal moment to affirm our commitment, not just to digital connectivity, but to the promise of equal opportunity and participation in the American economy for every American household, especially rural households for whom the digital divide is particularly challenging.”

They added: “The residents of North Carolina, and indeed all Americans, deserve no less than that.”