Shawn Wright worries a lot about his mom.

Wright, a 50-year-old IT manager from Oklahoma City, lives more than 1,300 miles from his elderly mother in Philadelphia and stays connected with her through regular phone calls, rudimentary texting, and a security camera system. He says she’s generally hesitant to welcome new technology into her life, but after she qualified for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program and a $30-per-month broadband stipend in 2021, she agreed to get internet access in her home and connect an Android phone to Wi-Fi.

Now that government-funded broadband stipend is winding down.

“I haven’t told her yet that the subsidy is ending, because I’m just going to start paying the additional fee for her internet service, and she would insist that I don’t do that,” Wright says. “She wants to feel like she’s independent. But I need to be able to support her remotely.”

As of Tuesday morning, the US Federal Communications Commission was forced to begin shutting down the ACP after Congress failed to pass a vote to extend the program. More than 23 million US households, roughly one in six, will be impacted, according to White House estimates. Data compiled by the FCC indicates that ACP recipients depend on their subsidized service for everything from school to work to health care needs.

First implemented in 2021, the ACP was part of a massive, $1.2 trillion Biden administration deal called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It provided $14.2 billion to make high-speed internet more affordable for low-income households. If a family’s income was less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline, they could claim a $30 credit on their monthly broadband bill. Households on designated Tribal lands were eligible to receive up to $75 per month.

The ACP was considered the largest and most successful broadband affordability program in US history by the FCC and initially was set to last five years. But demand for the program was higher than expected, and the FCC said earlier this year it would have to wind down the program two years earlier than planned because funds had run out.

“To me, one of the worst parts is that it doesn’t fulfill a promise to people,” says Milton Perez, a Brooklyn, New York, resident and homeless advocate who has qualified for the ACP. “The deal was that the ‘Emergency Broadband Benefit’ was changing from the EBB to the ACP in 2023 and going from $50 per month to $30 per month, so that more people would qualify and it would last longer. Well, it’s not lasting longer.”

Vital Service

Perez is one of the millions of people who relied on the ACP who are now left waiting to see how much longer they can stay online. After spending more than five years unhoused in New York City, Perez eventually landed in an apartment in Brooklyn in 2021. He subsists on housing vouchers, public assistance, and the advocacy work he does for the homeless community in New York. In March of this year, Perez was the guest of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke at the State of the Union Address.

For Perez, the ACP was a lifeline, an additional $30 per month that went toward his Metro smartphone data plan.

“I’m paying around $35 per month now, and that’s with $30 off my bill,” Perez says. “So eventually I’ll pay more than $60 per month.” This past weekend he used his data plan, which he uses for internet on his phone, to help out a former roommate who lives on a fixed income, and whose own internet access was so limited that he was having a hard time processing paperwork. “He’ll send me his housing documents, and I’ll upload them for him,” Perez says.

“If we want to close our nation’s digital divide, the Affordable Connectivity Program is not nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement in late February, when the program’s end was imminent. “We’ve come too far to turn back now.” That plea didn’t work.

According to an FCC survey of ACP recipients released in December 2023, 77 percent of respondents said that losing their ACP benefit would disrupt their internet service by forcing them to change their plan or cancel their service entirely. About half of respondents said they either had no internet service or relied solely on mobile internet prior to receiving the ACP benefit. Slightly more than half of rural residents said the same.

An overwhelming number of young respondents, aged 18 to 24, said they used the ACP benefit for doing schoolwork online. Seventy-two percent of all respondents said they used ACP-subsidized internet service to schedule or attend health care appointments, while nearly half said they used it for work.

Corporate Plans

Alex S., a freelance digital media marketer in Burbank, California, has been using his ACP benefit to boost his internet speeds for remote work. (He requested anonymity because he’s seeking more work and concerned that potential employers might consider him unreliable without solid internet access.)

“I’ve had a very bandwidth-heavy, very millennial internet job for the past 15 years,” Alex says, describing how he works with content creators across time zones and monitors their various social media accounts and livestreams for them. “I lost two of my biggest clients at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve been able to maintain my agency, but I ended up qualifying because my income fell below the threshold.”

Alex also describes himself as a “serial ISP promo negotiator” and has managed to get his $130-per-month internet plan down to nearly $50 per month with various promotional discounts on top of the ACP benefit. Now, his costs will spike again. “I have to lock in new clients soon,” Alex says. “Otherwise, I’m going to have to turn to short-term gig work.”

A group of bipartisan US senators and representatives have called for an additional $7 billion this month that would extend the ACP through the end of the year. The White House has expressed support, but the proposal hasn’t yet advanced in Congress.

In the meantime, some telcoms and ISPs are offering short-term subsidies and new discount plans to try to support low-income households that were previously relying on ACP. As WIRED’s Boone Ashworth reported today, there may still be some federally funded options.)

AT&T has said that it will continue to offer its Access Plan home internet for $30 per month, “which provides eligible customers with data speeds of up to 100 Mpbs.” Verizon is offering a plan that starts at $0 per month for new home-internet customers and up to $20 per month for some new and existing customers. Speeds start at 300 Mpbs.

Those receiving the ACP benefit through T-Mobile’s Assurance mobile plan will see no changes to their wireless bills throughout August, which means it will cost $0 for calls, texting, and data on a “strong and reliable 4G LTE signal.”

And Perez says that Metro, which is also part of T-Mobile, has indicated it will continue to offer a $15 reduction in his mobile bill throughout the summer. “I feel that I’m not in as bad of a situation as many others,” he says.

Additional reporting by Makena Kelly