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With federal funding, Colorado works to shore up its affordable internet program

Robert Davis

This story originally appeared in Capital & Main.

(Colorado Newsline) Teaching middle school social studies remotely during the coronavirus pandemic was one of the most challenging times of Steven Panchenko’s life. There were times when his bilingual students at Global Village Academy in Northglenn would freeze up on screen and miss five to 10 minutes of class. Others wouldn’t be able to attend at all if someone else in their homes needed to use the internet for work or medical purposes, he said.

That frustration increased after Panchenko signed off from work and tried to relax. Panchenko, 25, said that his internet connection would lag while he was playing Xbox games. There were other times when he’d try to watch a movie only to end up watching the buffering wheel spin on his screen. To make matters worse, there wasn’t any room in his monthly salary of $1,200 to upgrade his internet service.

But that all started to change when Panchenko learned about the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, a $14.2 billion pandemic-era program that was funded by the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and designed to expand internet access to low-income households across the country.

The ACP provides a monthly discount of up to $30 for internet to eligible households, or up to $75 per month for eligible households on Tribal land, and a one-time discount of up to $100 to buy a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers. Eligible households include those that receive social benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Tribal members who receive federal benefits, or those who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines ($60,000 a year for a family of four).

Panchenko said he signed up for the program through Verizon and was able to upgrade his internet package. He started telling his students about the program and noticed that those who signed up for it often performed better in class.

“When your budget is so tight, $30 here and there can really make a difference,” Panchenko said.

Panchenko is one of a growing number of Coloradans who have turned to the ACP to help pay for monthly internet service at a time when the rising cost of living is forcing many to make tough choices about their monthly expenses.

As of Aug. 28, more than 219,000 eligible households in Colorado had signed up for the ACP, which represents a growth rate of 35% year over year, according to data from the state’s broadband office. The total also means that about 27% of eligible households are using the program, compared to the 20% rate that was recorded at this time last year, according to The Colorado Sun.

Overall, the national program has seen results. By mid-August 2023, some 20 million eligible families had enrolled and used the program across all 50 states — with 73% of ACP households seeing moderate to significant improvement in their ability to access the internet and nearly half of respondents to a recent survey seeing improved educational opportunities or achievements.

With two weeks until the money runs out, Congress grinds to halt on spending bills

But political uncertainty in Washington is putting the ACP and many other pandemic-era programs at risk. The federal government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30, which means legislators have until then to agree on another budget deal to pay the government’s bills. Funding for the ACP is scheduled to run out in mid-2024, so even if it survives the next budget fight in Congress, the dance will repeat at least one more time.

It’s getting more expensive to live in Colorado, as it is in many parts of the U.S. The median sales price for a single family home in the state was $578,250 in July, 41% higher than in July 2019, before the pandemic began, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the metro Denver area had one of the highest inflation rates in the country in July, as inflation continues to eat away at workers’ real wages.

Colorado is set to receive $826.5 million from the infrastructure law’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, or BEAD, program to expand affordable broadband adoption. Officials told Capital & Main that some of this money could go toward creating a state subsidy program if the federal ACP ends, but that transition could be rocky.

“We have one shot at this, we don’t think we’ll ever see broadband funding at this level ever again,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter told Capital & Main in an email. “If we build broadband networks across the country to support the future of technology but people can’t afford it, it will be a wasted effort.”

The ACP is similar to the Federal Communications Commission’s temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which received $3.2 billion in funding in 2021 and which was replaced by the ACP. There are some important differences, however. The EBB included monthly discounts of $50 and $100, compared to ACP’s $30 and $75 discounts. But the ACP has a much larger applicant pool and received nearly five times the EBB’s funding. According to the latest American Community Survey, 92.7 million households in the U.S. earn up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, which dwarfs the 9 million households the FCC said were eligible for the EBB in 2021. In Colorado, more than 1.2 million households could qualify for the ACP based on income alone.

The ACP seems to be paying dividends across Colorado. Caitlin Schubert is a senior program manager at the nonprofit Community Economic Defense Project in Denver, which helps connect low-income households with ACP benefits. The program has been crucial in allowing people to stay connected after the pandemic, she told Capital & Main.

“We have become a society that is constantly reliant on our phones and computers. We use them to work, to go to the doctor and to access social services,” Schubert said. “And I think that’s been the coolest part of the ACP: Folks are actually getting connected to the world.”

We have one shot at this, we don’t think we’ll ever see broadband funding at this level ever again.

– Brandy Reitter, Colorado Broadband Office executive director

The ACP has really made a difference to people living on fixed incomes, said Courtney Whittet, customer experience manager at Loveland Pulse, a municipal internet service provider in Loveland. “It really gives people an avenue to being an active participant in society that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Whittet said.

Some kinks in the ACP still need to be worked out. Whittet and Schubert said the documentation required to sign up for the program can be burdensome, especially for older people and those in low-income households with low digital literacy. Both said they have helped people apply for the ACP but that such help is hard to scale because it can be time-intensive.

Panchenko agreed that the documentation process can be tricky for some. But the ACP also needs to have better messaging about its benefits, he added. He currently works as a community engagement specialist at the Colorado Community Action Association, a nonprofit that helps people sign up for the ACP. Panchenko said some people express concerns about strings attached to the $30 monthly credit.

“We’ve kind of been raised with this idea that everyone has an angle,” Panchenko said. “It’s not really an issue that the ACP can fix until we completely normalize it.”

Capital & Main reached out to the FCC for comment about the program’s documentation requirements and its messaging but did not receive a reply before press time.

Going forward, Reitter said the Colorado Broadband Office is focused on growing its infrastructure to expand statewide ACP participation. In December 2022, Colorado received a $5 million BEAD grant, which Reitter said was used to hire two new outreach specialists. Delia Sánchez, the office’s community engagement specialist, added that the office has focused on engaging the Latino community, affordable housing organizations and older people, among other groups. The office has also partnered with the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway to launch the Colorado ACP Act Now initiative, which gives 71 partnering cities and organizations access to ACP outreach materials to increase awareness and enrollment.

Advocates like Adeyinka Ogunlegan, vice president of government affairs and policy at EducationSuperHighway, remain concerned about the ACP losing funding due to  federal budget cuts because states like Colorado depend on ACP funding to meet digital equity goals. Colorado has a goal to connect 99% of state households with internet service by 2027. As of December 2022, about 90% of households have internet service, according to state data. 

The ACP could use improvement, Ogunlegan added. The FCC is working to create a data-sharing program to make ACP benefits more transferable, she said. Both Schubert and Whittet added that the program’s documentation process should be simplified to make ACP application easier for people who are not digitally literate.

“The digital divide was not new before the pandemic, but the federal government has finally equipped us to really make change,” Ogunlegan said. “And that’s something we need to continue to take advantage of.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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