AT&T with broadband assistance program seeks to close digital divide
Abigail Schneider, 8, center, completes a level of her learning game with her mother April in her bedroom on Dec. 8 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

AT&T and Cricket Wireless recently opened enrollment for the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which lowers the monthly cost of broadband service for eligible customers, a move that is potentially a game-changers because of its ability to help close the digital divide.

Congress recently created the long-term $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, which replaces the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program. This investment will help ensure that substantially more Americans can afford the broadband connections they need for work, school healthcare and more.

Why is this important? Because millions of Americans struggle to pay for internet service, but now more than a quarter of U.S. households may be eligible for federal financial assistance to help save money on their bills in 2022.

The Defender spoke with Luis Silva, AT&T’s vice president and general manager for South Texas, an area that stretches from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley, about this program.

DEFENDER: Why is this program a big deal?

LUIS SILVA: The pandemic brought a lot of awareness to the digital divide when you saw what happened with kids. There was a digital divide in those that could afford wireless service and/or internet service. In the schools, the ones that had internet, everything went immediately into digital classes without a problem. Those that didn’t have access to the internet or had very low internet, they would have to go home and do that paperwork, and then go back to the school and send it in. Digital divide. Who’s losing time? Who’s not? With the pandemic that came to light, and so the federal government came out originally with the EBB program to give a $50 discount to people that were living 135% under the poverty level to give them that assistance of $50 a month so they could get either a broadband discount or a wireless discount, so they could have access to the internet. What happened this year on December 31st is the government expanded that program to Something called the Affordable Connectivity Program, the ACP. Why is this one better? In some sense, it covers more people.

DEFENDER: Who qualifies for the ACP?

LUIS SILVA: It covers people 200% beyond poverty line. If you’re on SSI, any type of public housing or government assistant, you qualify for the program. All you have to do is go to ACPBenefit.org and apply for that benefit. What happens immediately, you get a $30 discount automatically on your phone bill or on the internet. Why is it important for us at AT&T? We get to have more people take advantage of the products that we have with the help of the government so that they can reach the internet or wireless access to a data plan on a tablet. It’s a huge benefit from the government, to build a level playing field. This will give the vast majority of people, more access to information that they didn’t have before.

DEFENDER: What about Cricket Wireless’ part?

LUIS SILVA: You can get Cricket Wireless in all their plans. Go to cricketwireless.com/ACP, and you can see all the discounted rates on the program.

DEFENDER: Who initiated this program?

LUIS SILVA: It’s a federal government initiative. And the Texas legislature helped. They have a huge commitment to broadband connectivity. Texas took a giant leap to ensuring that Texans have access to high-speed broadband. More than $500 million will be in invested in this. And it’s part of the American Rescue Plan to expand broadband infrastructure in Texas. This is not only about helping people, it will help us build more infrastructure to get or access the internet in areas where we do not have that buildout yet. With that help from the government, it will make more sense for us to build in other areas.

DEFENDER: Is there an application deadline or window?

LUIS SILVA: No. People can apply at any time. However, the people who are on the Emergency Broadband Benefit program will need to reapply by March 1. They are the only ones who have a deadline window because their EBB discount will expire on March 1.

DEFENDER: Do you have any other information to share?

LUIS SILVA: The one thing I want everybody to know, it’s very easy to apply. And we will make it immediate. You will get the discount (benefits) on your second bill. If you qualify, please apply. This will help a lot of people. And that’s what we want. We want to eliminate the digital divide, and this is one of the ways that we are going to approach it.

For more information, visit att.com/ACP and cricketwireless.com/ACP