Senate Passes FAA Reauthorization Without ACP Amendment

Affordable Connectivity Program

Lawmakers had hoped to use the bill as a vehicle for securing funding for the program.

Jake Neenan Senate Passes FAA Reauthorization Without ACP Amendment Sen. J. D. Vance speaking on the Senate floor Thursday

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2024 – The Senate voted Thursday evening to pass its Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization package without an amendment that would have funded the Affordable Connectivity Program. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers had hoped to use the must-pass FAA bill as a vehicle for infusing an extra $6 billion for the imperiled broadband subsidy program, but Senate leadership was successful in keeping non-aviation amendments off the bill.

Lawmakers had mounted a last-minute effort to negotiate a vote on the amendment, with lead sponsor Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, marshaling 16 bipartisan cosponsors and highlighting the support of advocates and industry groups alike on Thursday afternoon.

“There is growing bipartisan support to strengthen the Affordable Connectivity Program and keep this critical lifeline alive for more than 55 million Americans. There are now 16 Senators from both sides of the aisle, representing millions of people and diverse states, backing this amendment,” he said in a statement.

The Senate also managed to prevent a lapse in the agency’s authorization by passing a separate short-term extension. The House extended the agency’s remit until May 17 on Wednesday before leaving D.C. for the week, and will still need to vote on Thursday’s five-year reauthorization package.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, one of the ACP amendment’s supporters, spoke in favor of the measure on the Senate floor, reading multiple constituent letters detailing reliance on the ACP.

“It sort of breaks my heart when a constituent who can’t afford internet service is writing to us apologizing for a program’s budgetary hit when it’s a tiny, tiny slice of the American federal budget,” he said. “If we can afford to fund military conflicts the world over, can’t we afford to provide basic connectivity and services for our own people?”​

The Affordable Connectivity Program currently provides 23 million households with a $30 and $75 monthly discounts on their internet bills, but its $14.2 billion allotment from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act is running dry. April was the last month in which participants received the full discount, and the program’s remaining cash will be exhausted after providing smaller $14 benefits in May.

Monthslong efforts at staving off the ACP’s sunset, which did not tweak eligibility until the FAA amendment was filed on Tuesday, have so far failed as Republican leaders in Congress express concern over waste in the program. Remaining legislative options include proposed legislation from Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, which would reinstate the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction off spectrum bands and tap the proceeds for ACP funding, and a House bill currently languishing in committee. The Senate Commerce Committee has yet to vote on Cantwell’s proposal.

The proposed amendment would have reduced that number – by close to 3 million according to an estimate from USC Annenberg – through tighter income eligibility requirements, a concession necessary to get Republican support. Current beneficiaries who would be made ineligible would be allowed to stay on the program for at least six months.

Also in the amendment was an additional $3 billion for the rip and replace program, which reimburses small broadband providers for swapping out equipment from Chinese manufacturers deemed security threats by lawmakers. The program was allocated $1.9 billion, but faces at least a $3 billion shortfall.

The chair of the Federal Communications Commission told Congress this week that many of the participating providers said they won’t be able to complete the work without more money. The initial disbursement of funds set in motion a one-year deadline for providers to finish getting the gear out of their networks, even though they’re receiving just 40 percent of the amount they were approved for, creating a situation in which small providers may have to cut off service in the absence of more cash.

Both of those priorities would be funded by the proposed legislation from Cantwell, which would reinstate the FCC’s authority to auction off spectrum bands and tap the proceeds for ACP and rip and replace. The Senate still has yet to markup that proposal.