Over half of those enrolled in a government subsidy for discount internet are veterans or active duty troops. Now that subsidy may dry up.

Millions of veterans and service members will lose internet access when a federal subsidy runs out at the end of April, VA officials say.

The program, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program, ACP, is a Federal Communications Commission subsidy that offers broadband discounts up to $30 per month toward internet service.

“One in six families are enrolled in the program, and nearly half of those are military families,” said Department of Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Terrence Hayes. “Studies have shown that more than 1.1 million Veterans and their survivors receiving VA benefits have applied to be a part of the program.”

The ACP was launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to help households stay connected during quarantine restrictions. Federal lawmakers have approved more than $17 billion for the program over the last four years, but that money will run out at the end of the month. Participating households may receive a partial discount for the month of May if the program ends, according to the FCC.

Jim Whaley, retired 20-year, Army Lt. Col. and CEO of Mission Roll Call said the program’s disappearance could exacerbate problems for veterans who rely on telehealth for mental and behavioral health care.

“In a time when we’re still losing 17 veterans a day and need them to connect with other veterans and connect with other people – probably not the best time to pull out the support which is really normative,” Whaley said. “I would think it would be something we want to invest in rather than de-invest in.”

In a modern world where companies use the internet for job applications, news sources are going strictly digital and humans are sometimes only connecting with other humans online, Whaley called the internet “a part of the fabric of our life today.”  

“Let’s say a veteran needs to have a service dog. How does he or she go about that if they can’t search it, and then contact the organization?,” he said.

A bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives have introduced the ACP Extension Act which is pending a floor vote and would appropriate $7 billion from the U.S. Treasury’s general fund.

“We think passing this bill would be the easiest/fastest way to help veterans who are at-risk of losing internet access,” said Elizabeth Carlson, a spokesperson for the House Veterans Affairs committee. “But if that isn’t possible given what Congress is like these days, we will keep looking into other ways to make sure veterans can access the internet, which is more vital than ever with telehealth appointments.”

Internet access

The FCC program helped the VA with its “bridging the digital divide” campaign which helps vets without internet service or an internet-connected device get the access for telehealth care – another service that the VA has greatly invested in during and post-pandemic. Last year alone, 2.4 million Veterans received their VA care through more than 9.4 million video telehealth visits, according to the department.

Under the ACP, veterans with qualifying VA pensions were able to claim their internet subsidy without submitting additional paperwork to the FCC.

If the program ends, households will have to pay $30-75 more for monthly internet access meaning some “may lose access to the internet entirely,” Hayes said.

The VA and other veteran service organizations are worried that ending the program could spell trouble for veterans who need access to the internet for tele-healthcare like those living in rural areas or who are homebound due to severe illnesses.

“In every case, the bottom line is this: those Veterans couldn’t have accessed the lifesaving care they deserved if they didn’t have an internet connection,” Hayes said. “That’s why this program is so important.”

Under the ACP, eligible families were also able to receive one-time discounts of up to $100 to purchase laptops, desktop computers, or tablets from participating retailers with a contribution between $10 and $50. The program was limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.

Many active duty service members also rely on broadband subsidies. Internet access isn’t even a given for junior service members who live in base housing. Several of the Department of Defense’s latest barracks projects have highlighted Wifi access as part of its modernization efforts.

Whaley also pointed to a 2023 RAND report that found roughly 25% of U.S. troops were food insecure based on 2018 data. The report said that food insecure troops were more likely to be early-to-mid-career enlisted personnel grades E-4 to E-6, single with children, married without children, or a racial or ethnic minority. “They also were disproportionately in the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Navy,” according to RAND.

“They don’t have enough resources to ensure that they’re gonna have a meal plan for the next day. They’re getting food from food banks. They are eating probably not the most nutritious meals,” Whaley said. “If they can’t get food on the table, it’s not a leap of the imagination to understand why they are not able to afford internet.”

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