For years, John Lewis’ sister urged him to get an internet plan. He felt lost without it, he said, but he was stubborn and uninterested in learning to navigate something that felt so new.

That changed in late November, when Lewis wandered into the community room of City View at McCulloh, the West Baltimore tower where he lives in public housing, and found officials from the housing authority signing up residents for home internet. Now Lewis has an Xfinity connection in his apartment. Soon, $30 of his monthly bill will be covered by the federal government.

“I’m new to this, so it’s gonna make a big difference,” said Lewis, 57, sitting in the small high-rise apartment where he lives with his wife-to-be Darlene Lewis. The couple likes streaming TV shows and movies, one incentive for getting online, but they expect their new internet connection will help them with everything from medical appointments to shopping to job applications.

In an era when many Americans take reliable access to the internet for granted, Baltimore is still home to tens of thousands of households without a connection at home. In 2018, close to 40% of the city lacked a home wireline connection, according to one analysis of pre-pandemic figures, among the largest such gaps in the country.

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But since the start of the pandemic, Baltimore has quietly made headway toward closing its digital divide. The Lewises at City View are among tens of thousands of previously disconnected households that have gotten home connections since 2019. For many like the Lewises, the impetus for getting online has been a little-known federal subsidy that helps cover their monthly bills.

Exactly how many people, like the Lewises, didn’t have internet at all before they got signed up for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, isn’t clear, but Baltimore’s progress on this front is undeniably strong. Between 2018 and 2021, the number of households in Baltimore without internet access fell from around 96,000 to about 76,000 — a more than 20% drop — according to findings by Baltimore-based researcher John Horrigan of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, who argues that a substantial share of the city’s recent gains can be attributed to ACP and a similar predecessor program.

But this progress is fragile. Tens of thousands of households that qualify for ACP still aren’t signed up, and the billions of federal dollars budgeted to fund the program are on pace to dry up this spring.

Top officials with the Federal Communications Commission raised the alarm earlier this month, writing in a letter to Congress that millions of American households are at risk of losing affordable internet connections if lawmakers don’t move fast to earmark more funding. Without that assurance, the FCC planned to initiate immediate “wind-down” steps to ensure that households and providers are prepared for the program’s expiration, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Jan. 8.

The federal agency plans to halt new enrollments on Feb. 7.

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The end of ACP in Baltimore, Horrigan estimated in a recent interview, could mean up to half of participants — or nearly 40,000 households — are at risk of losing connections altogether.

Pandemic drives progress

Though millions of households nationwide have benefited from ACP, getting the word out remains a significant challenge.

Enrollment in Baltimore has been stronger than in many other parts of the country. Among 33 peer cities selected by Horrigan, Baltimore ranks fifth for the share of eligible households that have signed up for the subsidy, reaching more than 78,000 households. The city has also seen stronger uptake than the Maryland-wide average, 61% compared to 35%, according to tracking of the subsidy by the group Education Superhighway.

Signing up as many residents as possible for ACP has been a key component in Mayor Brandon Scott’s goal to close Baltimore’s digital divide by 2030, a commitment he has funded with $35 million in one-time pandemic aid. Subsidies also factor heavily into Gov. Wes Moore’s own promise to have the whole state connected on a somewhat more aggressive 5-year timeline.

Maryland offers another $15 in monthly support to anyone enrolled in ACP, cutting a total of $45 off their monthly bills. About 60% of people enrolled in ACP — an average of 165,000 Marylanders — get the state’s add-on each month, according to a spokesperson for the Office of Statewide Broadband.

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Baltimore, though, has ramped up its campaign to enroll people in ACP just as the clock on the federal subsidy is winding down. Mayor Scott’s push to close the digital divide got off to a rocky start, and the city Office of Broadband and Digital Equity didn’t launch its ACP awareness campaign until May 2023, within a year of the program’s projected end-date.

Rafael McFadden, a spokesman for the broadband office, said the city has allocated $180,000 of its pandemic aid and another $50,000 from a foundation grant for raising awareness about the federal subsidy, funding that has gone toward radio, bus and subway ads promoting the internet subsidy. The city is aiming to get at least 75% of its eligible population enrolled in ACP — or close to 18,000 more households according to a November report outlining Scott’s plans for expanding internet access.

Even with the city’s ACP push starting under a year ago, Baltimore seems to be getting people signed up in the parts of town that need it most. Lower-income neighborhoods with more Black residents have seen substantially higher rates of adoption than whiter and more affluent areas, according to a ZIP code analysis by The Baltimore Banner. That mirrors a pattern in other cities, where ACP enrollment has tended to be higher in areas with higher concentrations of low-income residents, a trend Horrigan attributed to word-of-mouth messaging.

One beneficiary of such efforts is Crystal Branch, a resident and tenant council president at Cherry Hill Homes who got signed up for the $30-a-month subsidy at a South Baltimore resource fair in the wake of the Brooklyn Homes mass shooting this summer. Branch, who also represents public housing residents on the Housing Authority of Baltimore City’s board of commissioners, estimated that some 70% of tenants at Cherry Hill Homes now get internet through the subsidy.

A woman in a striped dress stands in front of a community center.
Crystal Branch, tenant council member at Cherry Hill Homes, got signed up for ACP at a resource fair this summer after the Brooklyn Homes shooting. (Adam Willis/Adam Willis)

There’s been a dramatic shift in the share of public housing residents with internet connections since the start of the pandemic, Branch said. Now, if you have kids, you have internet, she observed, while older residents tend to be the biggest holdouts.

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Uptake in the program also seems to have accelerated with the launch of the city’s awareness campaign, climbing 28% since the start of May – from over 61,000 households to more than 78,000 households as of November.

But if the faucet cuts off, many will be left feeling that they have to readjust their lives for something that wasn’t their fault, Branch said. “Now, I gotta figure out what my next game plan is.”

For Cody Dorsey, executive director of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition, the imperative to keep pushing ACP only grows as the potential expiration date approaches. This subsidy is more than a “Band-Aid” solution, Dorsey said, arguing that a late-stage effort to get people signed up is the best strategy for convincing leaders in Washington that this program is worth the cost.

“In order to get the benefits extended,” he said, “we gotta get people signed up.”

‘Why mess with a good thing?’

Even as ACP seems to have put an encouraging dent in Baltimore’s digital divide, the future of the subsidy remains in the hands of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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Expanding broadband has long been an area of bipartisan consensus, but it’s not clear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will heed warnings from the Democratic administration. A faction of conservative hardliners in the House has lately made it a transparent goal to sow as much federal dysfunction as possible. In recent months the body has punted three times on deadlines to fund the federal government.

President Joe Biden has appealed to Congress for $6 billion to replenish the subsidy, but the FCC has also set a February deadline to cut off new enrollments.

Public spending on ACP clocks in at about $600 million per month, or more than $7 billion a year, a relatively costly tab for temporary relief, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for community control against corporations. According to rough calculations by Mitchell, the federal money needed to fund eight to 10 years of subsidized internet in Baltimore could instead finance fiber infrastructure to deliver free or low-cost internet to most of the city’s low-income neighborhoods — an idea that also happens to be a tenet of the vision mapped out by Baltimore’s former broadband director.

But if the feds do allow ACP to expire, Mitchell said, consequences could be dire. Not only could thousands of Baltimore households backslide, at least temporarily, Mitchell argued that even a brief lapse in the program would diminish trust in government support. Because of the difficulty of alerting recipients, many would either see their internet service cut out unexpectedly or be surprised by a suddenly large bill, he said.

Big telecom companies are also pushing to maintain the subsidy, which ensures a reliable revenue stream from low-income customers. Comcast, which also offers a cheap, $10 per month internet plan for low-income households, has prioritized ACP sign-ups in Baltimore, where it is the dominant provider.

Combined with Comcast’s low-cost subscription plan, ACP makes internet connection “effectively free,” said spokeswoman Kristie Fox, noting that the company has participated in more than 150 events locally to raise awareness and sign residents up for the program.

Regardless of what people are reading from the D.C. tea leaves, Scott said, Baltimore needs to keep pushing the subsidy. For many qualifying households, even a few months with $30 off their internet bills makes a difference, he noted. The Democratic mayor also pointed to the differences the program has made for Americans of all stripes.

“What they should not do is be partisan — and very stupid — with something that every single type of American benefits from,” Scott said last month. “If it works, why mess with a good thing?”

Taking advantage of the subsidy hasn’t been entirely smooth for Lewis, the public housing resident in City View. It wasn’t until his first two Comcast bills showed up with $72 charges that he realized he hadn’t completed a final step to activate his ACP enrollment, an issue he’s working to resolve.

Lewis expressed frustration that he may only get a few months of federal support. But now that he’s finally online, he said he expects he’ll keep the plan even if the subsidy expires.

“I’m the type of dude, once I learning something, I master it,” he said. “This is a big jump for me.”

Marylanders can find out whether they qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program here, and learn more about the state’s additional $15 subsidy here.

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