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Tribal communities across the country face a deepening digital divide as the funding pool for a federal connectivity subsidy dries up. 

Funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a two-year-old initiative designed to help low-income families afford internet service, is set to expire and Congress is unlikely to authorize more. That puts some 23 million households across the country at risk of losing the federal subsidy meant to help low-income families cover up to $30 a month on their internet bill. For tribal families, the subsidy climbed to $75 a month. 

April was the last month for the full subsidy, though tribal members enrolled in the program can receive up to $35 in the month of May. Absent additional funding, the program’s closure threatens to disconnect roughly 320,000 tribal households and home-based Native small businesses from internet access to telehealth providers, educational resources and essential resources. 

The loss of the ACP subsidy represents “a terrible blow to the local economy and a terrible setback for local families and the counties where they live,” per testimony by Jennifer Case Nevarez, director and lead educator for the Community Learning Network, a New Mexico educational nonprofit. Nevarez spoke at a May 2 hearing for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. 

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“A Dine’ (Navajo) elder I worked with lives on fixed income on a farm in rural New Mexico. With the end of ACP and broadband access…she, and many others, will go without Internet connectivity at home,” Nevarez said during the hearing. “In her case, she will do what she has done before to get online — drive 52 miles one-way to check her email at the public library.”

The ACP program has been especially crucial on tribal reservations, where fixed and low incomes are often the norm. The $75 subsidy through the program would, for example, cover most — or all — of the bill for families on the Mohawk St. Regis reservation in New York, according to Allyson Mitchell, general manager of Mohawk Networks LLC, an internet service provider owned by the tribe. 

Allyson Mitchell, Mohawk NetworksA lack of financial assistance could slow technology adoption and stymie growing access rates, Mitchell told Tribal Business News. Around a third of Mohawk’s 1,600 connected institutions and residences will be affected by collapse of the ACP program funding. 

“At any given point in the year, we had between 400 and 500 people using that program,” Mitchell said. “We have small businesses that are operating out of their homes that will be affected. We have elders that will be affected. ‘Collapse’ is probably an excellent way to describe this.”

The program’s end also attracted the attention of legislators, many of whom spoke out against its upcoming phase-out. Senator Peter Welch (D-Vermont) filed a bill in January to extend the ACP that is still in the Appropriations committee. That bill calls for $7 billion to extend the ACP, and was co-sponsored by JD Vance (R-Ohio), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

In April, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) amended a draft bill on spectrum auctions to appropriate the proposed $7 billion to keep the ACP afloat, per a statement by Welch. Welch praised Cantwell in a statement on the ACP published April 30 for “her leadership and commitment to the [program.]”

“Congress needs to act before the program is depleted and families fall into digital darkness,” Welch wrote.

Proposals to extend the subsidy were met with opposition, however. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas,) vice chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said the ACP was wasteful and inefficient. 

In a statement published to the committee’s website, Cruz said the ACP was oversubscribed and responsible for raising prices for unsubsidized customers. He pointed to the fact that only 22% of ACP-subscribed households didn’t have internet prior to the ACP’s introduction.

“This means that for every household that didn’t subscribe to premium internet, the federal government is subsidizing four households that did,” Cruz wrote. “[T]he Affordable Connectivity Program is not working as Congress intended: to assist those for whom cost was the barrier to gaining internet access.”

As Congress tries to decide the future of the ACP, Mitchell said she isn’t holding her breath. 

There’s no sign that help is coming, and that means Mohawk Networks and other tribal providers need to figure out how to best serve their communities, Mitchell said. For Mohawk Networks, that means adjusting their prices as best they can. Some households may be able to downgrade to a lower speed tier to avoid increasing costs, for example. 

“Tribally owned ISPs are in a unique position to respond to this,” Mitchell said. “These are run by members of our own communities. It’s community members that are responding to cut fiber lines or who are manning the front desk when people come to pay their bill. There’s a lot of strength in that.”

In the meantime, Mitchell’s focus is on the elders in her community. Elder community members have increasingly turned to online communications to stay in touch with doctors, friends, and family, she said. 

“That’s a population for whom broadband adoption is growing, especially in the last couple years,” Mitchell said. “This is where we need to be price sensitive, because so much of their communication has shifted online. Telemedicine might be new, but nonetheless it keeps our families connected and keeps us from having to travel 2-3-4 hours for specialty visits.”

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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