In the midst of pandemic, Alabama connects 100,000—and counting—low-income students to distance learning

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, October 19, 2020

Digital Beat

In the midst of pandemic, Alabama connects 100,000—and counting—low-income students to distance learning

Kenneth W. Boswell

Only six weeks after its launch, last week marked a major milestone for the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students Program: We have connected more than 100,000 low-income students statewide and the number grows by the thousands each day. These Alabama students now have reliable broadband service—paid for by the State of Alabama—that enables them to do homework and distance learn, with the cost of broadband removed as a barrier to learning.

The ABC for Students Program is part of how Alabama is confronting the challenges of supporting our students in the midst of pandemic. In late July, as it became clear that some Alabama schools would use distance learning for some of the upcoming school year, Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL) dedicated $100 million in federal CARES Act funding for this new public-private partnership program to support low-income students. 

The mission? Quickly deliver no-cost broadband services to low-income K-12 students across the state. The challenge? Standing up, in a matter of weeks, an enormously ambitious—and absolutely critical—program with collaboration between the State and internet service providers. A further challenge: making the program useful and usable for low-income families, many of which have never had home broadband service before, particularly in light of data that shows that some low-income broadband subsidy programs serve only a fifth or fewer of eligible consumers.

To address these needs, we built a program that is based on a handful of key guiding principles: 

Our first principle is to connect eligible families in an efficient, fast manner. To that end, we developed the program infrastructure on an emergency basis in August and launched in early September—mailing personalized voucher codes to every eligible family in the state and inviting them to call participating ISPs for service or call us for help getting connected. At the same time, we provided communications tools—both digital and analog—to schools throughout the state so that they could encourage family participation and support their students.

A second goal is to ensure participation by as many ISPs as possible, in order to reach as many families as possible across as many networks as possible: fiber, fixed wireless, mobile, cable broadband, and satellite. In just a few weeks in August, we contracted with 37 ISPs to participate in the program and serve our kids. Of the 37, the great majority are small Alabama companies in both rural and urban areas, and our program is helping them not only to support their local communities but also to provide equipment and installation to families for whom those costs are a barrier to purchasing broadband service. And by making Alabama companies a central part of the program, we are supporting our own local economies. 

Our third guiding principle was to ensure that families in rural Alabama were served, including in our historically underserved Black Belt, even though we know that rural Alabama--like most of rural America--lacks adequate broadband. To address this issue, we reached out to our rural ISPs and all the satellite companies to encourage their participation. We are frankly disappointed that the satellite industry was unable to serve more than a handful of households, but our local rural ISPs have made herculean efforts to reach as many families as possible, and we are working to support them with mobile equipment (known as “cells on wheels”) to supplement their networks.

Just as importantly, we seek to serve students without creating burdens for local schools, who have plenty on their plates as they address the needs of their students in the midst of the pandemic. Schools, relieved of the burden to contract directly with ISPs, have been tremendous partners to us by advocating for their families and working with us to develop innovative outreach efforts to encourage eligible families to take advantage of the program.

A related goal is to make participation as easy as possible, particularly since many of the eligible families have never had home broadband service before. Given the widely-understood challenges low-income families face in adopting broadband, we are proud that, within 10 days of mailing out the first round of vouchers, we had a 10 percent adoption rate. After passing that launch phase of the project, we have developed a range of strategies to encourage participation. These include outreach programs, strategies for sign-up events, and collaboration between schools and the ISPs themselves. These efforts are bearing fruit: On an average day, eligible families redeem thousands of new vouchers and our customer service team assists 600 to 1,000 callers to select a participating ISP and order service.

An additional goal has been to develop a robust and lasting program infrastructure that can support this effort, now and in the future. The program infrastructure, which was developed in only a matter of weeks, is working smoothly and has supported enormous volume of orders in a short period of time. The combination of our contractual, IT, and consumer support systems represents a first-of-its-kind statewide infrastructure that we hope can serve as a model for other states. 

And finally, we are working to develop best practices, lessons learned, and new data to understand how to serve our low-income students. Our goal is to use our pioneering program to better understand how to tackle the enormous broadband adoption gap—which is widely-regarded by educators and policymakers as one of the great education and economic development challenges of our era. The extensive learnings we are developing—about ABC for Students participation by both ISPs and eligible families—will offer long-term lessons to the nation about how to address the critical broadband needs of America’s low-income students.

Kenneth W. Boswell is Director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs

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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