Internet subsidy helping 68K homes across southern NM winds down

LAS CRUCES – A federal initiative helping more than 68,000 low-income homes in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District pay for the internet has begun winding down. That’s after Congress has not renewed funding for the pandemic-relief measure, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program. In New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers much of Southern New […]

Internet subsidy helping 68K homes across southern NM winds down

LAS CRUCES – A federal initiative helping more than 68,000 low-income homes in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District pay for the internet has begun winding down.

That’s after Congress has not renewed funding for the pandemic-relief measure, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program.

In New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers much of Southern New Mexico, 42% of eligible homes – about 68,400 – are receiving the subsidy, according to a dashboard compiled by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Nationwide, some 27 million households are enrolled in the program, which provides up to $30 per month (or $75 per month on tribal lands) toward qualifying families’ internet subscriptions, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“One of the biggest concerns for the Office of Broadband right now is the ending of the ACP,” said Drew Lovelace, acting director of the state Office of Broadband Access and Expansion. “It is one of the most important funds that’s come around to help with digital equity. The money is looking like it’s going to run out in April. Congress has not reinvested into it.”

In early February, the Federal Communications Commission began winding down the program by halting new enrollments. People who were registered before Feb. 8 will continue to receive the subsidy until funding runs out – projected to happen in April. But anyone not signed up before that cut-off date can no longer enroll, even if they would’ve previously qualified.

Just over 60 percent of homes have access to a high-speed internet connection in Congressional District 2, meaning there are many that don’t, according to a Congressional District Health Dashboard. This poses barriers for residents trying to connect to school, work, business and health care opportunities.

ACP participants nationwide expressed deep concerns about possibly losing access to the program, according to an October 2023 survey by Benenson Strategy Group and the cable TV and communications company Comcast. Some 95% said they would struggle with balancing household costs. Other findings include:

  • 65% of ACP participants fear losing their job or their household’s primary source of income
  • 75% of ACP participants fear losing access to important healthcare services, including online appointments or prescription medicine refills
  • 81% of ACP parents worry about their children falling behind in school
  • 79% of ACP participants worry about losing social connections they foster through the internet

Closing the digital gap

There are several major aspects to New Mexico’s digital divide. One is that high-speed internet infrastructure is lacking in many places, especially rural and low-income areas. But another is that, even where infrastructure is more robust, many families and individuals can’t afford to pay for the internet among competing demands like rent, utilities and groceries. That’s where the Affordable Connectivity Program has made strides.

On tribal lands, families were able to receive up to $75 per month toward their internet subscription. Lovelace said there were another 24 zones throughout the state deemed “high-cost” service areas where families and individuals also could qualify for up to $75 per month. The payment could go toward cell phone-based internet, as well as other types of connectivity, as long as the provider or company was signed up to participate through the FCC.

The ending of ACP comes at a time when families in Southern New Mexico are struggling with steep costs of housing, groceries and other living expenses.

During the pandemic, Las Cruces Public Schools students and their families benefited from an initiative that paired the Affordable Connectivity Program with a special internet access deal by Comcast Xfinity, a major cable and internet provider in Las Cruces. The company offered internet for about $10 per month to families, but when the ACP was factored in, the internet essentially was free to many homes.

Notices to go out to ACP enrollees

If you’re an Affordable Connectivity Program participant, what does the wind-down mean for you?

Households that are enrolled in the ACP will continue to receive monthly discounted internet

service through the end of its funding, likely in April, as long as they remain enrolled in the program and eligible for it, according to the FCC. 

During the ACP wind-down period, ACP households will receive notices from their internet company about the impact of the end of the benefit on the household’s bill and service. The

notices will tell internet users:

  • that the ACP is ending,
  • the impact on their bill,
  • the date of the last bill they will receive that includes the ACP benefit,
  • that they may change their service or opt-out of continuing service after the end of the

ACP, and

  • ACP households may also switch their internet plans without penalty.

Will the state of New Mexico step in?

State broadband officials had previously discussed with the SNMJC the possibility of seeking funding from New Mexico lawmakers to continue the program. However, the state broadband office didn’t pursue that proposal in the legislative session that ended Feb. 15.

Lovelace said, however, it’s likely that New Mexico will pour much of an impending federal funding award for digital equity into continuing the program. The state hasn’t yet received the digital equity funding, but it’s in the process of finalizing a plan that’s a precursor to receiving the money.

The digital equity funding is fairly substantial, but it also would run out eventually. A rough estimate of the total cost to fund the current ACP enrollment level in New Mexico, assuming that an average subsidy was about $30 monthly, is about $5.4 million per month or about $64 million annually, according to Lovelace.

“The state will try to take a look to see what we can do, but we don’t have large enough pots of money to continue that indefinitely,” Lovelace said.

It’s unclear when a state version of the program, if it happens, would launch.

Alison Riley, spokesperson for the Office of Broadband Expansion and Access, noted there’s still a chance that Congress could choose to act and fund the Affordable Connectivity Program.

NM’s delegation seeks ACP renewal

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have expressed support for extending the ACP. But some observers have said the proposal faces an uphill battle.

Congressman Gabe Vasquez, representing New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, said he’s backing a federal measure called the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024. He described it in a newsletter as “very important to securing funding to ensure our New Mexican families can continue getting access to affordable, high-speed internet.”

Among New Mexico’s three congressional districts, the 2nd District has the highest percentage of eligible homes participating in ACP. The numbers are as follows, per the Institute for Local Self Reliance:

  • Congressional District 1: 138,055 homes eligible; 47,261 enrolled (34% participation rate)
  • Congressional District 2: 162,359 homes eligible; 68,400 enrolled (42% participation rate)
  • Congressional District 3: 158,900 homes eligible; 57,906 enrolled (36% participation rate)

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, signed onto a letter with other senators last fall urging congressional leaders to extend ACP funding.

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more information visit, SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org.

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