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End of federal internet subsidy to impact over 81,000 El Paso households, 23M nationally

By Adam Powell (El Paso Times)

More than 81,000 households across El Paso could pay more for internet unless Congress takes action soon.

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program was launched amid the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic and extended via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 to make high-speed internet access more affordable for low-income families.

The ACP gives eligible households a monthly discount on their internet bills and a one-time discount on purchasing a laptop, desktop or tablet. Currently, more than 23 million households nationally are enrolled in the program, according to a letterfrom the Federal Communications Commission.

With the $14.2 billion originally allocated for the program running out at the end of April, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar is sounding the alarm.

Escobar held a roundtable discussion with local stakeholders — school districts, service providers and nonprofits — on April 23 to discuss the potential impacts of the program's demise and bring renewed attention to its benefits.

"We know in our community, especially as we saw during the pandemic, there is a growing reliance on connectivity, and more and more people across the country, El Paso is no exception ... really need internet access," Escobar, D-El Paso, said during a news conference following the roundtable discussion. "And without that internet access, there is a gap in information, a gap in access to services, and that gap becomes a gap between people who are able to achieve fundamental goals for their households versus those who cannot."

While the program was initially launched as a way to ensure students had access to the technology needed to transform their homes into classrooms during the social-distancing days of the pandemic, Escobar said the need has now extended far beyond young people.

"It's not just young people and schools that need to have connectivity, it is people across the spectrum, all ages, every pocket of the community," she said. "Everywhere we go, there is a requirement for people to have email addresses, more and more things are being done online — for our health care, for job applications, you name it."

"And unless Congress reauthorizes this funding, we are very concerned about the growing gap that will be created, especially here at home in El Paso."

Escobar is calling on House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Shreveport, to bring a bill to the floor renewing the program, which she believes would have bipartisan support in the usually divided U.S. House.

"There are members of the House majority, the Republican majority, who do want to see this reauthorized, especially those members that represent rural communities," she said. "This is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue, this is a modern-day America issue. We have to help families access connectivity."

A 'force for good in our society'

Among those gathered around Escobar for the news conference in Downtown El Paso was Andrea Tirres, CEO of Borderplex Connect, a group launched in 2022 to expand access and broadband affordability in the region.

"Connectivity to the internet is essential in today's life," Tirres said. "It is like having access to electricity ... "

So dire is the situation, Tirres said, that some families are considering cutting back on groceries so they can afford home internet.

"These are people in our community," she said, "these are our neighbors, our coworkers, our cousins, our grandparents, our friends, and we really need to think about how we are going to build a stronger community."

"Access to internet is key in building stronger communities."

Robert Chacon, founder of local internet service provider JackRabbit, struck a similar chord, hailed the program as "a force for good in our society," saying that the ACP has been "instrumental" in allowing his company to "provide broadband internet service to families who could otherwise not afford it."

"Imagine you're a student starting college but your family can't afford high-speed internet, maybe you use your phone's hotspot for internet access," he said. "As you try to attend a Zoom conference with your class, it stutters and disconnects every few minutes."

"Will you stay engaged? Will you even stay in school?" Chacon said. "Internet used to be a luxury. It is no longer a luxury; it is something we need."

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