Addressing Broadband Affordability and the Future of Artificial Intelligence for Black America

High speed internet is required for Americans to be able to live, work, learn and play. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is an FCC benefit program that helps ensure that households can afford the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare and more.

Passed as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), ACP focuses on affordability and provides American households a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. In addition, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

According to NBCSL panelist Koy Miller, Executive Director of the Public Policy and Strategic Alliance for Verizon, ACP has been extremely successful acting like a subsidy to help make internet more affordable and accessible for low-income families. So far, 22 million households are benefitting from this program, including connecting approximately 20 million urban households and about 3 million rural households.

However, explained Miller, the total addressable market is actually between 48 and 51 million households, which means as successful as it is to reach 22 million households, there is still much more work to be done. While ACP is permanent and there is no statutory sunset or reason to end the program, the only way the ACP discontinues to support Americans is if the it runs out of funds. Miller, alongside NBCSL panelist Mansoor Khadir, Associate Vice President of External Affairs for NCTA, The Internet & Television Association, warned state legislators that the program will run out of funds in April 2024.

“Part of the success of ACP is that it provides a service that helps children address the homework gap and helps people looking for employment,” explained Khadir. “Very few programs out there have bipartisan support, and ACP has 78% because the program works. ACP changes people’s lives and it needs to be refunded.”

According to Khadir, a lot of research has been done to understand the impact of broadband and access to high-speed internet. The impact is not just seen in homes, but also in the economy. With the broad reach of ACP, increasingly more people are able to do remote skill training from home and therefore create a better prepared workforce.

In addition to positively impacting students at every age, broadband is an equalizer for veterans. Miller shared that veterans participate in 40,000 telemedicine visits every day that may not otherwise have occurred without access to these critical mental health and medical appointments.

Miller and Khadir explained other similar initiatives such as Internet for All that are working in concert with ACP to improve economic outcomes through access to the internet. Organizations like Verizon are holding events across the country to educate and register tens of thousands of people.

How can legislators help ensure the ACP doesn’t end? Miller explained there is no ACP if Congress does not act. State legislators can write letters, blog posts, op-eds and ask critical questions such as why hasn’t this program been extended. They can make calls and talk with constituents to gather testimonials of how access to the internet has helped improve their lives and share with colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“When funds run out,” cautioned Khadir, “there will be tremendous consequences. We are living in a world of artificial intelligence. How can we tell people in an age where technology will advance and grow exponentially that we are going to make it more expensive to connect to the internet?”

Joining the discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) was Chelsi Bennett, State Public Policy Lead for the Eastern U.S. for Block, and Assemblyman Clyde Vanel of the New York General Assembly (33rd District).

AI has been around since 1985 in more basic executions than what we see and experience today. In November 2022, generative AI and long-range model programs became publicly available, and since then, many things have changed and a lot of advancements have been made.

Some of the concerns are understanding and protecting the gap when AI takes the place of human decision making. Vanel explained how he used AI to look at the New York state law, find a gap and write a bill to address it. AI did indeed find a gap and Vanel introduced a housing bill that was co-authored by ChatGPT. However, his bill received some backlash and, as a result, Vanel uses this example to caution other state legislators when wrestling with technology and figuring out how to use it to disrupt and help on the job.

Bennett discussed a host of ways AI can help businesses, including creating content, automating processes and operations, and improving efficiency and effectiveness. Based off of new data that came out from the small business entrepreneurship council, 93% of small business owners believe AI tools are cost-effective and can improve profitability.

However, there is concern that algorithmic discrimination can occur as studies have shown that women and people of color are less likely than non-Black people to receive a financial loan. As a result, it’s important for laws and policies to allow for innovation but also protect against high-risk AI and provide consumer protection.

That’s why, said Bennett, African Americans need to be at the table because the data put into the AI impacts output. Vanel agreed there aren’t enough Black people in the room when discussions are happening, and decisions are made about training and hiring around AI technology. Lawmakers should also consider privacy and intellectual privacy rights, and it will be critical for Black legislators to be involved in those efforts and be able to provide guidance.

With very few Black companies in the AI space, increasing broadband access via ACP will help create the pipeline for future African Americans in technology.