If you’ve been in the market for an internet package recently, you may have noticed a notification near your final purchase about qualifying for a discount on your internet bill via the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). While it may be just an extra button to click through to wrap up your purchase, this federal initiative is worth a second glance. Qualifying applicants are eligible for a discount ranging between $30-75 on their monthly internet bill.
Households on qualifying tribal lands, federally recognized tribes in the continental U.S., Native Hawaiians, and Native Alaskans are allotted the $75 per month benefit, which can effectively eliminate half or even all of the monthly bill from an internet service provider (ISP). Households that use federal assistance programs or meet economic criteria are also eligible for a $30 per month discount.
However, specific Indigenous communities, like Pacific Islanders, are caught in the middle of these two amounts. The U.S. government does not classify the Pacific Territories of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and American Samoa as tribal lands within the confines of the ACP. Qualifying residents can only receive a maximum of a $30 subsidy per month. And when an internet bill ranges between $75-150 per month for a household, $30 can feel like little help.
A hard pill to swallow in this equation is that it can be argued that those same households would more than likely qualify for a full $75 discount if the territories were a state on the American mainland. Peter Dresslar, senior adviser for broadband and digital equity consultant for the CNMI, was not surprised about this discrepancy. “It’s par for the course for the territories to be forgotten,” he said.
History of the ACP
On Dec. 31, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the roll-out of the Affordable Connectivity Program as a part of the larger Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. With $14.2 billion in hand, the program was the successor to the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which helped 9 million people in the U.S. afford internet service throughout the pandemic. This was sorely needed. Students who didn’t have home internet were completing homework from McDonald’s parking lots. Many workers either lost their jobs or transitioned to being fully remote workplaces. The EBB helped bridge the broadband gap and deploy services to the households that needed them most.
However, the discount amount was a notable difference between the EBB and the ACP. Throughout the EBB, qualifying households could redeem a $50 discount on their monthly bill. With the ACP, that discount dropped to $30. The subsidy amount for qualifying tribal lands remained unchanged at $75 per month.
Another monumental piece of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was the announcement of the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The government allocated over $42 billion to assess and build out internet infrastructure in hard-to-reach and high-cost pockets of the country that struggle with broadband access, including the Pacific Territories.
While a high-cost designation is a factor in how federal BEAD money will be allocated later this year, the language describing qualifying regions could easily be applied to the Pacific Islands and translate to higher ACP subsidies, too.
Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million BEAD funds to upgrade or construct fresh broadband in unserved and underserved areas first. The Pacific Territories and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be given that same $100 million to split among themselves. That means that in the Pacific, not only are tribal benefits from the ACP not applicable to make existing internet services more affordable for households, each of these four territories will receive only a quarter of what any state would to increase broadband access alone.
The Pacific Territories are some of the most expensive places in the country to buy internet plans. As of March 2022, American Samoa has two internet providers that cover 2.9% and 74.8% of the island, respectively. Accompanying plans start at $55 monthly and range up to $130. While CNMI has more internet providers across the islands, plans range from $70-150 per month. Similar pricing and options are available in Guam, with some packages reaching $175 per month.
In 2022, advocates in the Pacific Territories started ringing the alarms to the FCC. Dresslar was a part of the team imploring them to simply designate the Pacific Territories as high-cost areas because they fully met the established definition.
“Our communication was that these territories are literally on the other side of the planet in different hemispheres from the continental U.S., and they’re largely Indigenous,” says Dresslar. “[The] territories receive the most expensive internet than any state … The law fails to mention Pacific Islanders, but these are some of America’s oldest and most Indigenous cultures.”
As of the 2020 U.S. Census, 46% of Guam residents identified as Native Hawaiian or as a member of another Indigenous group. In the Northern Mariana Islands, that same figure hovered around 43%. In American Samoa, that figure shot up to a bit over 88% of the population. The Pacific Territories have higher concentrations per capita of Indigenous Americans than all of the states in the country. The total population of all Pacific Territories hovers around 250,000 people, which is less than half of the population of the least-dense state on the mainland, Wyoming. “Overall it’s a small number [of households using the ACP]… It wouldn’t have a huge overall impact on the program compared to the size of the states,” says Dresslar.
The FCC followed up with Pacific broadband offices and alerted them that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was responsible for determining a high-cost designation. Thus, the consideration for the Pacific Territories fell under their jurisdiction. In the fall of 2022, the governors of each Pacific Territory penned letters imploring the NTIA to review the contextual factors of the territories and institute a high-cost designation immediately.
In February 2023, Dresslar received an update from the NTIA: The agency was focused on high-cost designations across the mainland before determining the status of the territories. “To me, it’s particularly galling to say that they’re even considering rural Georgia or upstate Vermont [as high cost],” says Dresslar. “I assure you that the Pacific Territories are more remote, more geographically isolated, less wealthy, [and] more Indigenous than anywhere being evaluated on the mainland.”
Though the NTIA and the FCC have received correspondence on providing high-cost designations in the territories, the agencies also contend with complaints about inaccuracies in recently released broadband maps. Updated maps will have a large hand in determining which states and territories receive their fair share of $42.5 billion in BEAD funding. More than 1 million complaints have been received. To Dresslar, it’s likely that this question of economics in the territories and of the Indigenous groups there receiving what they should has fallen to the wayside in favor of getting the mainland house in order.
As the months pass, one may think that higher internet prices in the Pacific are not a big deal on a national scale, but in this part of the world, the question is never as technical as it is economic. “Something around 10,000 households [in the territories] are using the ACP benefit,” says Dresslar. Over one year, those homes are collectively losing out on over $5 million that could otherwise stay in their pockets. And it would help as the cost of living is extremely high. Groceries are more expensive than in mainland states because, per the Jones Act, everything shipped between U.S. ports must be on a ship made and operated by the U.S.
The economics of broadband infrastructure hinge on a specific concept: Dense, urban communities often indirectly subsidize rural ones. Everyone may pay the same amount for broadband access, but at times it’s much more expensive for ISPs to reach rural communities. Such is the problem with island construction.
The installation of fiber-optic internet costs $100,000-200,000 per mile in a rural community. Those costs shrink to $500-5,000 in an urban environment. Investments are recouped by monthly internet bills for a massive number of customers over long periods of time.
Even with available technology, there are only so many households that will eventually subsidize the high investments. Thus, internet service prices increase for customers.
Tyrone Taitano, the infrastructure coordinator for the Guam Office of Infrastructure Policy and Development, wholly believes that access issues in Guam specifically are not about having the technology. The problem is affordability for families. “[For some] people, [they go] to the mall to get free internet access and check their email,” says Taitano. “Cost factors are high.”
Taitano has had informal conversations with local ISPs to see if they can provide residents in need with broadband access squarely for the current $30 ACP subsidy per month. Unfortunately, ISPs can’t do it. They’re economies of scale. With only so many people on any given island, $30 per month isn’t enough to equip a household with basic internet and chip away at the initial investment.
For the most part, the U.S. Territories—CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—are treated the same way by the ACP. Puerto Rico only qualifies for the $30 monthly subsidy, and it makes a significant impact. While only 1 in 4 qualifying households have signed up for the ACP nationally, Puerto Rico has one of the highest adoption rates. “We currently have almost 600,000 families subscribed to the program,” says executive director of the Puerto Rico Broadband Program, Enrique Völckers Nin. “Puerto Rico is not tribal land and is not treated as such.”
As Dresslar and Taitano wait for word from the NTIA, the fact of the matter is that there is no guarantee that ACP subsidies will change. The program could run out of money. It has to be reauthorized by Congress for the funds to continue, and there is a distinct possibility that the timeline for determining a high-cost designation could exceed that period. “If that’s the case, the territories will have missed out from what we’ve read as almost a statutory given,” says Dresslar.
Future infrastructure investments
No matter how the cards may fall when it comes to high-cost subsidies, there is an open-ended question on how Pacific Islanders’ rights and needs may be forgotten in the big national picture in the future. BEAD is just the tip of the iceberg. The value of other federal infrastructure projects coming down the pike is $1.2 trillion dollars. In how many other small, benign-on-the-surface ways are these groups continually left out?
“When you ask people if they think Pacific Islanders should be included [for Indigenous programs], they say, ‘Yeah, of course,’ because there are Native Hawaiians and Indigenous people in the region. It’s really an unfortunate slip that the people putting together this legislation had a lapse of remembering where all of the parts of America were,” says Dresslar.
There was a lot to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the greatest lessons was just how powerful a strong internet connection was. With it, people could tap into jobs, education, and health care that were otherwise inaccessible before. There’s no way to say how those same opportunities, no matter how they come, could impact generations to come in the Pacific. “[Our residents are] not poor in terms of people. They’re superstars in terms of [being] capable individuals. They’re deserving [of these] opportunities,” concludes Dresslar.
On March 8, 2023, an NTIA representative provided the following comment on a lack of a high-cost designation in the Pacific Territories:
“NTIA is working to create a definition of high-cost areas to use for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment program. The FCC will then use that same definition to administer the Affordable Connectivity Program. We are taking input from stakeholders, like the Territories, as we create the definition for high-cost areas.”