Access to remote learning, telemedicine during extreme weather events could end for millions

According to USTelecom, many of the residents who rely on monthly subsidies live in rural regions. The program began during the pandemic era, and it is up to Congress to find funding for it.

WASHINGTON – A federal program designed to provide internet access to low-income households is set to run out of funding during May, meaning millions of people could have to adapt to life without having online access.

The Affordable Connectivity Program began during the pandemic and provides more than 23 million households with subsidies destined to support broadband access for jobs, education, healthcare and other vital needs of society.

The Federal Communications Commission reports the program started with $14.2 billion, but that funding is expected to be completely exhausted by mid-May, according to representatives of the United States Telecom Association.

"It does not bode well for so many of our most needy citizens and their kids," said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom.

During the age of widespread internet availability, school districts, medical professionals and others have turned to virtual alternatives during threats of extreme weather - an option that may not be viable once funding runs out for millions of Americans.

Virtual learning days and the use of telemedicine have resulted in operations continuing at institutions during threats of weather without forcing children or the vulnerable into elements that often can be dangerous.

Before the pandemic, organizations and institutions would simply close during what were often dubbed ‘snow days’ in the North and ‘hurricane days’ in the South, but the full cancelation of hours led to the loss of productivity.

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New York City Public Schools resorted to online learning in February ahead of the threat of the heaviest snowfall in two years, and the risk of an early-season tornado outbreak across the South in January caused some school districts from the Carolinas to Florida to implement online learning instead of possibly exposing children to the weather.

According to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in 2020, 39% of school district leaders across the country use virtual learning in place of weather cancelations and another 32% of school districts have contemplated on making a policy change towards the virtual option.

With the potential of fewer households having sufficient internet access due to ACP funding, it raises concerns on whether institutions will be able to resort to virtual workarounds, a matter that USTelecom leaders said they’ve heard.

"We’ve heard from hundreds of groups, rural groups, public housing authorities, AARP…School groups and community groups are writing their members of Congress saying this is an indispensable program," Spalter stated.

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The program is used from coast to coast, but an analysis of data provided by the Universal Service Administrative Company showed the heaviest concentrations of users exist in Louisiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

"Many of those who are most in need and are living in rural areas get their weather information because they happen to have connectivity," said Spalter.

The FCC has already started the process of notifying users that April will be the last month the subsidy is paid in full, and an estimated 75% of households could see a disruption or end to their service. 

"Many of these households have contacted the Commission to express their disappointment and frustration that they can no longer sign up for the program. Others have contacted the agency to express concern about the impending end of the program, noting its impact on older adults, families with school children, and military families at risk of losing their internet service without the ACP benefit," FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a letter to Congress.

If funding is allowed to expire, it is unclear how quickly the program could be reinstated if legislators revisit the issue during a future session.

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