Over the past decade, the New York and Federal governments have spent more than $1 billion in an attempt to close the state’s digital divide. But the goal of universal connectivity has proved elusive. Here in Westchester County, more than 50,000 households continue to lack reliable, fast internet service. Minorities are particularly hard hit. According to a recent survey by the Westchester Community Foundation, compared to similar counties, Westchester had the lowest percentage of Black households with internet access and with Black and Hispanic households in Yonkers particularly falling behind their white counterparts. New York has a plan to address this digital deficit by spending an additional $1.4 billion on expanding broadband infrastructure statewide. But infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle, and the infrastructure investment will be for naught if low-income households can’t afford to connect.

Enter the national Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP. The ACP was created in 2021 as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law to make high-speed internet more affordable. It has been wildly successful. The ACP helps one in six families across the nation to afford internet access, now a necessity for participating in the broader economy. Over the past three years, the program has provided over 40,000 households in Westchester County with a $30 monthly discounted internet bill.

Workers installing broadband fiber in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of EPB Fiber Optics.

To harness the promise of the ACP, the Westchester County Association together with the STEM Alliance and other partners launched two first-of-its-kind, digital connectivity initiatives, the Yonkers-based YZone and the county-wide Connect Westchester. These nationally recognized pilots have been abundantly effective in building digital equity and strengthening communities while growing the local economy. Data collected from these initiatives and analyzed by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society highlight the critical importance of the ACP for access to job training, schoolwork, financial literacy, telemedicine and governmental services — all of which leads to lower unemployment and greater economic mobility. Here in Westchester, ACP connectivity made possible by these WCA programs means an annual 2.7% increase in household income for program participants.

But the ACP has run out of money and, unless Congress acts, the program will expire. A recent FCC survey concluded that, absent continued funding, over 75% of the households enrolled in the ACP could reduce or drop their internet service altogether. Essentially, after building trust and reliance through funding, Congress will pull the rug out from under these families.

ACP’s wind down also jeopardizes a $42.5 billion appropriation for new rural broadband and digital equity initiatives across the country. Absent an ACP-funded subscriber base, the return on new taxpayer-funded broadband investments and digital equity programming (particularly those involving coveted public-private partnerships) cannot be guaranteed.

Congress can still make this right. The bipartisan and bicameral Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024 would add $7 billion in stopgap funding while policymakers consider more permanent fixes after the November general election. The bill enjoys across-the-board support from state and municipal governments, broadband providers, and the not-for-profit sector.

Extending the ACP is a smart domestic priority that will have an immediate and long-lasting impact. Congress needs to pass the ACP Extension Act and work towards a permanent solution both to assist those households which have placed their trust in the program and to ensure that the tens of billions of dollars being deployed for new infrastructure is not squandered. Click here to view this article in its original format.

Michael N. Romita is the president and CEO of the Westchester County Association. Christopher Fisher is a partner at Cuddy & Feder LLP, specializing in digital infrastructure and broadband policy and serves as co-chair of the WCA’s Digital Taskforce.