ACP Key to Montana's Digital Opportunity Plan
Tuesday, September 12, 2023
ACP Key to Montana's Digital Opportunity Plan
States are banking on the ACP to ensure broadband is affordable for their low-income residents, but the future of the program remains uncertain. This week we are spotlighting the role ACP plays in states’ digital equity plans to achieve universal broadband.
To fully understand the depth and causes of its digital divide, Montana conducted extensive stakeholder outreach and inventoried the assets available to address barriers to digital opportunity. And the Montana Broadband Office (MBO) concluded that the digital divide cannot be closed without affordable, accessible high-speed broadband, the proper devices to navigate the internet, and adequate digital skills and security.
According to U.S. Census data, Montana ranks 44th in high-speed internet adoption with 67 percent of households subscribed to high-speed terrestrial broadband (including cable, fiber optic, or DSL).(1) In five counties—Rosebud, Glacier, Powell, Mineral, and Roosevelt—less than 60 percent of households have terrestrial broadband.
In its Digital Opportunity Plan, Montana's primary goal is to ensure all Montana residents have access to affordable internet in their homes, schools, libraries, and businesses, irrespective of their income level. According to BroadbandNow, Montana ranks 49th among U.S. states in access to affordable broadband plans—only 62 percent of households have access to wired plans at speeds of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload or higher priced at $60/month or less.
According to MBO's survey, affordability was the second most commonly cited reason (after availability) for not having adopted high-speed internet. Nearly 17 percent of Montanans without high-speed internet cited lack of affordability as the primary reason. Thirty-five percent of Montana households with an income under $20,000 do not have broadband at home, versus 17 percent for those with incomes $20,000-75,000, and five percent of those earning above $75,000, indicating a strong relationship between income and internet adoption.
The main objective of Montana's Digital Opportunity Plan is to close the digital divide for what the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act calls "covered populations":
- Low-income households (income is not more than 150 percent of an amount equal to the poverty level),
- People age 60 and over,
- Incarcerated individuals,
- Individuals with disabilities,
- Individuals with a language barrier, including individuals who are English learners and have low levels of literacy,
- Individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group, and
- Individuals who primarily reside in a rural area.
Covered populations make up 83.3 percent of Montana’s population, with individuals primarily residing in a rural area accounting for nearly two-thirds of the state’s citizens. Over one-fifth of Montana's population lives in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line. And at least 31 percent of Montanans live in a household with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, making them eligible to participate in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The benefit provides 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.
MBO's survey data shows that across covered populations, lack of affordability is a primary reason for their lack of high-speed internet:
- 18 percent of survey respondents aged 60 and older report that internet is unaffordable,
- 22 percent of racial or ethnic minorities report that internet is unaffordable,
- 20 percent of individuals with disabilities report that internet is unaffordable, and
- 17 percent of veterans report that internet is unaffordable.
Just 18 percent of non-covered populations cite lack of affordability as the main reason for their inadequate broadband access.
Even though affordability is such a major barrier to broadband adoption in the state, at least 79 percent of eligible Montanans have not enrolled in the program, putting the state 41st in national ACP enrollment, according to analysis by EducationSuperHighway. At just 21 percent, Montana’s ACP enrollment rate is below the national average of 33 percent. Currently, ACP uptake is minimal in Montana's rural areas, where service availability also lags. In the state's more populous areas, there is also room for ACP enrollment growth.
The MBO survey found that lack of awareness may be a key reason for low ACP enrollment. Among survey respondents, 69 percent stated that they are
not aware of any internet subsidy programs. Another 28 percent responded that they are aware of internet subsidy programs, but that they do not participate.
MBO identifies ACP enrollment as a key strategy to help address the affordability gap for Montanans. The state's draft Digital Opportunity Plan proposes increasing awareness and assisting eligible households in the enrollment process through:
- engaging a non-governmental organization that focuses on public engagement to increase adoption of public services to promote ACP adoption throughout the state,
- coordinating state agencies to raise awareness and adoption,
- enlisting community anchor institutions to help raise awareness and assist in ACP sign-ups, and
- work with broadband service providers to promote ACP to their eligible customers, particularly those that ask about low-
But federal funding for the ACP may be exhausted in early 2024, perpetuating Montana's affordability issues—especially for the over 50,000 households in the state that are already enrolled in the program. If Congress does not allocate additional funding soon, internet service providers will begin in early 2024 to inform Montana ACP subscribers that the program is ending. And these households will be at risk of losing internet access.
- When including satellite and cellular broadband, adoption rises to 89 percent.
In this series:
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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