Connecting Low-Income Families Using Broadband Vouchers

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Digital Beat

Connecting Low-Income Families Using Broadband Vouchers

On September 17, TPRC and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society presented the 2022 Early Career Scholar Award to Erezi Ogbo, recognizing her scholarship in the area of digital inclusion and broadband adoption.

TL; DR – The Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students program had high uptake among eligible families, particularly in areas with more digitally vulnerably people and areas with majority Democrat voters. The program presents evidence on three critical design elements for increasing uptake in broadband affordability programs: (1) Targeted outreach through trusted messengers; (2) Remove barriers to enrollment; and (3) Combine multiple mechanisms/network technologies.

Erezi Ogbo

There is an emerging debate on effective subsidy mechanisms to help low-income households connect to broadband, especially with the rise of remote work and learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The major federal broadband consumer subsidy programs that have been implemented, in the U.S. (the Lifeline, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP))[1] are rebates administered through broadband providers. However, uptake in these programs among eligible households have been modest. For example, in the State of Alabama, 13% of eligible households signed up to Lifeline as of April 2022 and less than a quarter (24%) signed up to EBB at as at the end of December 2021. Direct-to-consumer voucher subsidies have been widely applied to non-broadband social benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), yet there is limited implementation for broadband. There has been increased advocacy for direct-to-consumer broadband voucher programs to replace rebates on consumers’ bills because, some argue, they reduce the administrative costs, improve program transparency, and increase competition by supporting broader connectivity options and providers [2-3]. However, given the dearth of direct-to-consumer broadband voucher programs, there is limited empirical evidence supporting the arguments for vouchers.

Note: EBB offered up to $50 per household. The average monthly subsidy per household is estimated using the total subsidy expenditures and the total recipient households for each program.

The ABC Program

In August 2020, Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) established the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students program. A systematic review of digital inclusion programs suggests that this is the only digital inclusion program using direct-to-consumer vouchers that has been implemented in the U.S. to address the affordability barrier. Administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the ABC program ran through the 2020-21 school year and ended in June 2021.

Using funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the program provided eligible low-income families—those with school-aged children receiving free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)—with broadband vouchers or hotspots [4]. Families with children that were eligible for—but not enrolled in—NSLP were encouraged to sign up so that they could participate in the ABC program. Initially, ADECA mailed a package containing personalized voucher codes and information about the program to the address of all eligible families. The vouchers covered the cost of service, installation, and a device and could be used with any of the participating providers. Out of 156 active internet providers in the state in 2019, 41 accepted vouchers through the program. To be eligible to accept the ABC voucher, the provider needed to be able to provide broadband service at the minimum speed of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload. Families that could not redeem the vouchers (for example, because they lived outside the coverage area of participating ISPs) received a hotspot through their school districts. The program established a support office which provided one-on-one support to enrolled families and school districts and developed an informational website. Information about the program was shared in English and Spanish.

At its conclusion, ABC connected over 200,000 students (in 107,000 households). Out of these households, 76,000 received vouchers directly from ADECA, while 31,000 received hotspots through school districts.

Key Findings

  • The ABC program had high uptake among eligible families. At the conclusion of the voucher phase of the ABC program, 43% of eligible households had redeemed a voucher. With the inclusion of hotspots, the overall participation rate in the program increased to over 60%.
  • The program had higher participation rates in areas with more digitally vulnerable families. Analyzing participation rates at the Census Bureau-defined Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMA) reveals that poorer PUMAs and PUMAs with higher rates of Blacks and Hispanics had higher participation rate. This evidence suggests that populations that were most in need for assistance with broadband connectivity (low-income, Blacks, and Hispanics) were most likely to participate in the program which could mean the program was well targeted.
  • Political party affiliation seem to have affected participation. PUMAs with majority Democrat residents had significantly higher participation rates. This is unsurprising, given that support for, awareness, and uptake of public assistance programs are consistently larger among democratic voters and constituencies. However, this evidence demonstrates the need for increased targeted outreach in Republican constituencies to increase program enrollment.

Critical Design Elements of the ABC Program

Several strategies implemented in the ABC program present evidence on three critical design factors for increasing uptake in broadband affordability programs:

  1. Targeted outreach through trusted messengers

The ABC program presents substantial evidence that targeted outreach through trusted messengers and in the right language increases program uptake. For example, ADECA conducted outreach in multiple languages and partnered with school districts and mailed informational packets directly to families. By the conclusion of the program, over 60% of eligible families participated—which is significantly higher than the participation rates of the Lifeline (13% as of April 2022 ) and EBB (24% as at the end of December 2021) programs in the State of Alabama. Also, as the ABC program neared conclusion, the program administrators shared information about EBB on the dedicated ABC website and encouraged ABC participants to transfer to EBB. An analysis of the relationship between ABC and EBB participation rates in Alabama reveals that PUMAs with higher ABC participation rates have higher EBB participation rates, suggesting that EBB outreach through ABC administrators (acting as trusted messengers) was beneficial. In designing a digital inclusion program, well-targeted outreach in the right language, culture, and through trusted messengers is essential.

  1. Remove barriers to enrollment

Although ABC and EBB provided similar average monthly subsidies per connected household ($38 and $41, respectively), the participation rate in the ABC voucher program (43%) was significantly higher than the participation rates for EBB in Alabama (24% as at the end of December 2021). Also, the ABC participation rate is more than three times the Lifeline participation rate in the State of Alabama (13% as of April 2022). It is difficult to directly compare the ABC program against EBB or Lifeline given that ABC had a much smaller target population (limited to families with school-aged children and an annual income of 185% or less than the Federal Poverty Guidelines) than EBB and Lifeline (open to all households with an annual income of 135% or less than the Federal Poverty Guidelines). However, it is worth noting that the reduced barriers to enrollment in the ABC program distinguishes it from the other programs and might explain the higher uptake.

  1. Combine multiple network technologies

The access digital divide is an ongoing challenge. According to a 2019 report by BroadbandNow, approximately 475,000 residents (representing 28% of the population) in the state of Alabama have no terrestrial broadband access [5]. With no access, these residents would largely be unable to benefit from many broadband affordability programs. Combining terrestrial broadband with hotspots increased participation rate in the ABC program by over 40%. This evidence demonstrates that combining broadband connectivity technology helps address the access gap and can have a dramatic impact on program uptake; therefore, digital inclusion programs should consider existing access digital divides and utilize multiple connectivity technologies to meet the diverse needs of the target population.

See the full working paper for a detailed overview of the method, results, and discussion of findings.

Notes and References

  1. Lifeline offers a monthly subsidy of up to $9.25 (up to $34.25 for those living on Tribal lands) to reduce the cost of phone, broadband, or bundled services. The program was established in 1985 and expanded to subsidize internet access in 2016. Established in May 2021, EBB was a temporary program that offered a $50 monthly subsidy (up to $75 for those living on Tribal lands) to reduce the cost broadband and transitioned to ACP on December 31st, 2021. Households with income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines could qualify for Lifeline and EBB. ACP has a much higher income threshold (households with income at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines can qualify) and offers a monthly subsidy of $30 (up to $75 for those living on Tribal lands).
  2. M. Clyburn and R. McDowell, “Congress Can Help America Stay Connected During the COVID Crisis,” Morning Consult, 2020. (accessed Nov. 17, 2021).
  3. B. Skorup and M. Kotrous, “Narrowing the Rural Digital Divide with Consumer Vouchers,” Mercatus Center George Mason University, 2020.
  4. ADECA, “Memorandum of Understanding Between the State of Alabama Department of Finance and ADECA,” 2020. (accessed Apr. 18, 2022).
  5. BroadbandNow, “Alabama Internet Service Providers: Availability & Coverage,” 2021. (accessed Apr. 18, 2022)

Erezi Ogbo is an Assistant Professor of Information Science and the Director of Extended Studies at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in the School of Library and Information Science. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Southern California. Her research studies the digital divides, user acceptance of technology, and technology's impact among marginalized populations. Erezi has received numerous awards for her work including the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award (2022) by the Benton Institute in partnership with the Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy (TPRC), the Young Scholar Award (2022) by the Pacific Telecommunications Council, and the Robert Dunlap Award by the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2014, Erezi was recognized as a promising young scholar by the Federal Government of Nigeria and awarded the Presidential Special Scholarship for Innovation and Development. Erezi earned her PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and also holds degrees from the University of St Andrews, Scotland and Bells University of Technology, Nigeria.

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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