The Economic, Political, Historic and Even Theological Case for ACP

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Digital Beat

The Economic, Political, Historic and Even Theological Case for ACP

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery at Net Inclusion 2024

Blair Levin

This conference is awesome.

My role here, however, is awkward for two reasons.

First, it is Valentine’s Day. I feel I should be home with my wife.

Having been married 40 years, I’m not too worried, but still….

Second, I am more comfortable speaking to groups that disagree with me.

For example, the last time I left home to speak on Valentine’s Day was 2011 when I debated the leadership of the rural phone company trade association about their criticisms of the National Broadband Plan in front of 3,000 of their members.

Not exactly a romantic way to spent Valentine’s Day but it was a fun discussion.

Here, however, I don’t have to convince you of anything.

Instead, my task is simpler. It is to offer a profound thanks for what you are doing, work that is making our country stronger, more prosperous, and more just.

Which I’ll do with a mixture of history, economics, politics and just for fun, even a dose of theology.

And I hope to provide a bit of ammunition on an issue I know you care about.

Return to March 2020. A horrible month for the United States. A great month for broadband.

Those changes depended on home broadband connections. Which, in turn, changed the thinking of elected officials.

On a bipartisan basis, they loudly voiced the imperative to close digital divides caused by a lack of access and affordability.

Painful confession: Covid proved a much better evangelist for universal broadband than the Executive Director of the 2010 National Broadband Plan.

The COVID experience led to provisions—widely praised even by those who didn’t vote for them—in the 2021 Infrastructure Bill, to address those divides.

As Congress recognized, “a broadband connection and digital literacy are increasingly critical to how individuals participate in the society, economy, and civic institutions of the United States; and access health care and essential services, obtain education, and build careers.”

Yet the United States may soon take the greatest step backward any country has ever taken to increase its digital divide.

Why? The legislation’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which subsidizes broadband for nearly 23 million households, will soon run out of funds.

You all know this. You also know the tragedy it will be for those households.

They know it too.

A recent study showed that:

  • 65% of ACP participants fear losing broadband would result in losing their job or their household’s primary source of income;
  • 75% fear losing access to healthcare; and
  • 81% of ACP parents worry about their children falling behind in school.

It’s also a tragedy for the country.

What is true for those families ripples throughout our economy and society. Ending ACP will raise the cost of providing health care, particularly Medicaid.

Covid taught us that telehealth can produce better outcomes at lower costs, trends that have continued post-Covid. And who is the largest healthealthcarerance company that can benefit from these trends? The US government. But if millions they cover lack broadband, it will raise the cost of government by billions.

Ending ACP will lower economic growth.

A recent economics working paper estimated that for every dollar spent on ACP, the US GDP would increase by $3.89.

Further, data tells us broadband enables folks to train and search for jobs, reducing the time and cost of unemployment.

Ending ACP will even cause crime to rise in years ahead.

The data is clear that there is “a strong connection between early low literacy skills and our country’s exploding incarceration rates.”

The data also demonstrates that reading scores are higher for those with broadband in the homes.

The economic case for ACP is clear.

So is the political case.

A conservative think tank recently released a poll showing 79% of voters support continuing the ACP “including 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 96% of Democrats.”

The coalition supporting extension is large and broad—including the affected companies, chambers of commerce, advocating in harmony with progressive, community, and civil rights groups.

So, it’s no surprise that there are enough House Republican co-sponsors on an ACP extension bill to guarantee passage if there is a vote.

The Senate would be easier.

The political reality is this.

If ACP ends it will be because the House leadership decided not to let an extension on the floor for a vote.

That is, a minority of one House appears willing to take steps to raise the cost of Medicaid and other government services, increase crime, and lower economic growth.


Interestingly, the Speaker, who has the power to bring extension legislation to a vote, has implied that he does not base his policies on such economic data and political analysis.

Rather his views on every issue can be found by reading the Bible.

We should respect that.

We should also feel comfortable that if those are the grounds for the debate, we still win.

I am not a biblical scholar. But I have read the Old and New Testament multiple times.

References to broadband? Zero.

No surprise.

For us broadband policy nerds, it hurts but we should accept that facts are facts.

More to the point, however, I defy anyone any suggestions in those books that communities should increase the cost of health care for the poor, the cost of government, crime, and lower economic productivity.

On the other hand, I could quote you dozens of passages suggesting Moses, Jesus or others seeking to spread God’s word would advocate for the opposite.

Consider Leviticus 25:35: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them…so that they can continue to live among you.”

Leviticus 25 mandates the precise moral sentiments of the Congressional language I quoted earlier—that we have an obligation to help people so that they can live among us in dignity, in health, in prosperity.

It is also the moral sentiments behind SNAP, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, the School Lunch Program, and other programs to assist those with limited means living among us.

And if you prefer the New Testament, you’ll find similar sentiments in Luke 14:12-14 and Matthew 22:37-39, among many other passages.

When President Kennedy said, “Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own,” he meant the kind of work Leviticus mandates and that you are doing.

So, whether one bases one’s policy preferences on economics, politics or theology, the answer is the same.

Congress should extend ACP.

The program is not perfect. We should be open to changes.

We should even be open to changes we don’t like if the package keeps the bulk of the benefits in place.

And we should require that many government agencies serving ACP-eligible constituencies restructure their services to improve outcomes and lower costs through digital means.

But if we want to lower the cost of government, illiteracy, crime, and increase economic growth, Congress should extend ACP.

Before it cuts off.

And fix it before the next cut-off.

Let’s wrap up by considering what history will say about letting ACP expire.

It will not be kind.

History always hails those who understand certain things cannot be allowed to divide a nation.

And then act to close those divides.

Lincoln understood this, asking whether “a nation can long endure half slave and half free.”

History honors his subsequent Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent Constitutional Amendments designed to end that chasm.

FDR understood this when he said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

History honors his efforts to address those rifts.

Universal broadband connectivity may not have the same moral imperative as ending slavery or drastically reducing poverty.

But it is no small thing.

And sometimes policies that are not front-page news have enormous long-term impacts.

To his credit, Roosevelt addressed the one-third of America that was ill-housed by creating the Federal Housing Authority, making it easier for Americans to obtain mortgages.

To our shame and pain, the Authority restricted lending in African American neighborhoods.

That impact has been devasting and long-lasting.

It is one of the most significant reasons for the racial wealth gap, for the average wealth of an African American family of a college graduate being less than the average wealth of a white family headed by a high-school graduate.

Let’s project forward.

Wealth creation in this century’s global information economy will require digital access and skills.

So, just as restricting home ownership in the 1930s created negative consequences that reverberate for us today, so too, if gulfs in digital access and utilization continue, it will weaken our economy and society for generations to come.

This has been clear at least since 2010 when the National Broadband Plan found that “The cost of this digital exclusion is large and growing.”

In the decade ahead, which will see AI transform jobs, education, and health care, it will be an order of magnitude truer.

Roosevelt, after describing the one-third of the nation in poverty, continued: “But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern.”

Sadly, his Administration did not live up to his vision of making “every American citizen the subject of his or her country’s interest and concern.”

We must not make the same mistake.

But like him, we should not despair.

Because you, in this room, see and understand today’s divide.

So does most of the country.

As does a majority of Congress.

Painting out the divide, the work that you are doing to enable all to participate in the 21st Century economy and society, is good for the economy, good for society, good in the eyes of history, and is truly God’s work.

So, thank you.

And keep fighting.

Blair Levin is the Policy Advisor to New Street Research and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro​. Prior to joining New Street, Blair served as Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt (1993-1997), directed the writing of the United States National Broadband Plan (2009-2010), and was a policy analyst for the equity research teams at Legg Mason and Stif Nicolaus. Levin is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2023. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

For subscribe/unsubscribe info, please email headlinesATbentonDOTorg

Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Blair Levin.