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Internet bills to swell for millions of Americans as federal subsidies run out

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Most people think of their home internet as a necessity. But, like everything else, that comes at a cost. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $14 billion to help people pay for home internet. It's something called the Affordable Connectivity Program. It gave 23 million low-income households anywhere 30 to $75 a month to offset their internet bill. But now funding is running out, and despite bipartisan support, Congress has not been able to pass additional funding. Tom Perez directs the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and is a senior adviser to the President. Tom, welcome back to the program.

TOM PEREZ: It's always great to be with you and your listeners.

SUMMERS: So, Tom, I just want to set aside the policy for a moment and ask you, what does the end of this funding practically mean for people who rely on it? Like, what will they now not be able to do that they once were able to?

PEREZ: This program is a lifeline, Juana. And to give you a sense of how popular it is, we have over 23 million households participating in it. Roughly half are military families. A quarter are Black. A quarter are Latino. Many seniors participate, and it enables them to get access to telemedicine. If you live in rural America and you don't have high-speed internet, you don't have access to health care.

And by the way, it hasn't been a red-blue issue. Every congressional district across America has people participating in this program. If we want to continue our progress in closing the digital divide and making sure that ZIP code doesn't determine destiny, we've got to reauthorize the program.

SUMMERS: I want to jump in here because, as we pointed out, this is a program that has bipartisan support. But despite that, it does have its critics. They include Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who suggested that this program is wasteful. He pointed out at a hearing yesterday that the FCC already has a program - it's called Lifeline - that offers about nine bucks a month in subsidies. So what is the White House doing to convince skeptical Republicans about the need to pass more legislation?

PEREZ: Well, to those who say we can't afford to do this, I would say we can't afford not to do this. Nine bucks a month versus $50 a month - that's $41 difference. Sit down with a family that is literally making those tough choices between food and medicine and the internet. I mean, internet, as President Biden has said, truly is like water. And just as we wouldn't turn off water pipes, we certainly should never turn off high-speed internet. And I would invite Senator Cruz to talk to someone who runs a rural health clinic in Texas and ask them about the importance of telemedicine to that rural health clinic. It is life and death.

SUMMERS: Some states already require internet service providers to provide low-cost internet to low-income households. New York State, for example, just won a court fight about that state's ability to do so, for example. Do you expect to see additional states follow suit?

PEREZ: I think that's a possibility. I mean, this is another example of where states will be laboratories of innovation here and inclusion. But at the same time, you shouldn't have to win the geographic lottery to have access to affordable high-speed internet. And while I applaud the states and what they're doing, I think the best solution is what has been going on for two years.

SUMMERS: Tom, you've been in politics for a long time, so I don't have to tell you this, but it is very challenging on Capitol Hill right now to get anything done, even things that have bipartisan support. How optimistic are you that there can be progress on this on Capitol Hill, that there can be additional funding passed in short order?

PEREZ: Well, I do have optimism because I work for one of the most optimistic people I've ever seen in my life, and that is President Biden. And there's so many things we have been able to get done because we've been persistent. This is a moment in time not that different from the '30s, when FDR brought us rural electrification. We are now building out the information superhighway, and that information superhighway needs to be available to everybody, not simply a few.

SUMMERS: Tom Perez directs the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and is a senior adviser to the president. Tom, thank you.

PEREZ: Pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.