Half of ACP-Eligible Households Still Unaware of the Program
Friday, March 17, 2023
Half of ACP-Eligible Households Still Unaware of the Program
New Survey Shows that Outreach to Trusted Anchor Institutions and Digital Skills Training can Help
After a year of operation, half of all households eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) internet subsidy are unaware of the benefit. A January 2023 survey of low-income households finds that over 50% say they have never heard of the program or do not know anything about it.
Although many eligible households are unaware of ACP, the survey points to ways in which policymakers and community leaders can encourage enrollment. First, outreach can make a difference. Some 37% of eligible households that knew little about the program say they would be likely to apply with more information and 31% said they would be likely to apply if they knew whether they qualified.
The other part of the picture is digital skills. The survey finds that respondents with high levels of confidence in their digital skills are nearly twice as likely to have successfully signed up for ACP than those with less confidence in their digital skills. Some 26% of those with high levels of digital skills reported that they had successfully enrolled in ACP compared with only 14% of those with low levels of digital skills.
The survey also found that, among households that have enrolled in ACP for a fixed home service, most still pay something for internet service. When asked what they pay for internet service after the ACP subsidy, the median figure cited households that had signed up for fixed service was $40 per month. The sum of the ACP subsidy ($30) and the median remaining fee ($40) is in line with the average monthly bill ($75) U.S. households pay for service.
In light of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent announcement of grants awarded to fund ACP outreach campaigns, the survey offers guidance on how best to execute these initiatives:
- Collaborate with trusted local institutions and communities. The survey found that respondents were likely to trust community anchor institutions such as libraries or churches for information about benefit programs. Among eligible households currently unaware of the ACP, 77% say they would trust information on this type of program if it came from a local community organization.
- Leverage participation in other social programs. Information coming from programs in which respondents already participate – such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – was also cited as highly trusted for learning about new benefit programs. Among eligible households currently unaware of the ACP, 80% say they would trust information on this type of program if it came from a benefits program they already participate in.
- Understand that outreach initiatives must be tailored to the needs of specific communities. The mode of outreach matters, as the survey found that respondents ranked emails and text messages at the top when asked what kind of outreach would elicit a response from them. TV and Web advertisements ranked lowest. However, these rankings varied by race, as White respondents said they were more likely to respond to email outreach than texts, while African-Americans displayed a preference for text messaging. Traditional mail could prove to be an effective outreach tool for Hispanic respondents, while local TV or radio spots may be better in African-American dominant communities.
- Integrate activities to promote ACP enrollment with digital equity planning. The link between digital skills and likelihood of successful ACP enrollment is an important finding for state and local decisionmakers. Past research has shown relationships between digital skills training and using the internet for education or job search, and this survey finds a similar association between digital skills and engaging with internet benefit programs. The payoff to investments in digital skills extends to enrolling in programs that can ease affordability pressures in addition to helping people use the internet to improve their lives.
I. January 2023 Survey Shows How Lower-Income Households View ACP
This report is based on a January 2023 survey of 2,000 U.S. households with annual household incomes of $65,000 or less – a threshold chosen to approximate those likely to be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program, the federal government’s $30 per month internet subsidy program. The survey was conducted using an online panel, meaning it did not include the most hard-to-reach audience: those that do not currently have a home internet subscription. Below are four takeaways from this survey that FCC outreach grant recipients should recognize as they begin their work.
1. Lack of awareness is still the primary barrier
Prior research conducted in 2022 demonstrated that there are several important barriers to ACP participation, including awareness challenges, trust challenges (i.e. skepticism about benefit programs or concerns about sharing personal information), and enrollment challenges (complex application process with high rejection rate). Our early 2023 survey clearly shows that lack of awareness is the primary barrier that needs addressing: over 50% of ACP-eligible households had either never heard of the program or had heard of it but didn’t know anything about it (Figure 1). Trust and enrollment issues also emerged, but a large part of the on-the-ground work of grant recipients should be focused on simply getting the word out about the program.
Among those who were not aware of the ACP, over two thirds (68%) indicated they would be likely to apply if given more information or if they knew that they qualified. Importantly, a significant portion (20%) of our sample was only eligible for the ACP through a qualifying program (and not through their income) – suggesting that reaching out through these qualifying programs would be a worthwhile effort.
2. Digital skill level is an important predictor of successful sign-ups
The survey asked respondents to assess their own digital skills.(1) This turned out to be an important predictor of successful sign-ups: those reporting to have high levels of digital skills were nearly twice as likely (26% vs. 14%) to have successfully signed up for the ACP program (Figure 2).
A similar gap emerged between mobile-only users and those with both mobile and fixed connections.Among those who actually applied for the ACP, mobile-only users were twice as likely to get help from a friend or family member during the sign-up process.
The forthcoming Digital Equity Act capacity and competitive grant programs will allocate nearly $2.7 billion in funding, and will largely focus on teaching digital skills and ensuring that people have the knowledge and capacity to use the internet.However, these programs are not likely to begin until the middle of 2024.Recipients of the FCC’s ACP Outreach Grant Program should be aware that digital skills vary widely across ACP-eligible households.Achieving a successful sign-up for one household may only require a simple nudge, whereas others may involve significant time commitments. In our survey, the high, medium, and low-skills groups were approximately evenly distributed, with each comprising about a third of the total respondents.
There are lessons to be learned from successful digital navigator programs, including that the vast majority of patrons need one-on-one attention to help them, and that establishing and building trust is crucial.As ACP outreach grant awardees begin to build up their workforce, they should attempt to recruit staff and volunteers from the communities that they serve and recognize that many of their patrons – particularly those with limited digital skills – will need individualized attention.
3. Optimal outreach methods may vary by race
ACP outreach can take a variety of forms, including direct mail, door-to-door, text, email, or social media. Our survey tried to determine the best way to get in touch with eligible households about programs like ACP. We asked them to rank different methods of contact in terms of which they were most likely to respond to. Unsurprisingly, email and text ranked highest while web advertisements and local TV / radio spots ranked the lowest. However, there were some notable differences across racial categories that outreach grant recipients should consider (Figure 3).
While email ranked significantly higher than text messages for White respondents, the two methods were about equal for Hispanics – but text was preferred among African-Americans. Around 18% of households selected social media as the type of contact method they were most likely to respond to. Perhaps surprisingly, physical mailers ranked relatively high among Hispanic households. African-American households, however, showed a preference for local TV or radio spots over mailers.
Differences were also found across digital skill levels: 24% of low-skilled respondents selected physical mail as their preferred method of contact, compared with less than 10% of high-skill respondents.
Our survey also asked about the trustworthiness of different sources of information. Other research on ACP participation has found that information from a local community organization such as a library or church is considered very trustworthy, and that finding was replicated in our survey. Another trusted source of information are programs that people already participate in, such as SNAP and Medicaid. Both of these sources rank even higher than word of mouth from family or friends. These findings largely held across all races.
As outreach grant recipients think about the various ways they might engage with their audience, they should recognize that the ‘best’ way likely varies across demographics. Combined with takeaway point #1 above – that lack of awareness is still the primary barrier – the results suggest that a multi-level approach may be appropriate. That is, broader-level messaging via social media or physical mailers could be followed up with personalized texts or emails developed with the help of state or local organizations.
4. Most households signing up for the ACP are still paying a monthly internet bill
Our survey included the question, “How much is your monthly, home internet bill including taxes after the Affordable Connectivity Program Discount?”Among those using the ACP to pay for a fixed home connection and responding to this question, only 10% indicated that their monthly home internet bill was now $0.The median amount paid was $40, consistent with other evidence suggesting a typical monthly internet bill of around $75 for U.S. households.A significant portion (21%) are still paying more than $70 for a monthly home connection.
II. Background on FCC outreach grants and ACP
On March 10, 2023, the FCC announced over $66 million in grants for the Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program. This included $60 million for the National Competitive Outreach Program awarded across 180 entities and $6 million to 20 recipients for the Tribal Competitive Outreach Program. Recipients will work to spread the message about the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in their local communities and to help eligible households through the sign-up process. On March 15, the FCC announced an additional $7.5 million in Outreach Grants to 32 organizations in 22 states for two additional outreach programs: the Your Home, Your Internet Pilot Program, which is focused on ACP outreach and application support to recipients of federal housing assistance; and (2) the ACP Navigator Pilot Program, which provides selected applicants access to the National Verifier to help low-income households complete and submit their ACP application.
The ACP was introduced in January 2022 and provides a discount of $30 per month ($75 on qualifying Tribal lands) towards internet service for eligible households. These households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Households are eligible for the ACP if they earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line or participate in qualifying programs.
Estimates suggest that somewhere between 52 and 55 million U.S. households are eligible for the program. By the end of 2022, about 28% of eligible households (or 15.4 million) had enrolled. The FCC recognized the importance of targeted outreach for raising the participation rate, and set increasing ACP enrollment as a specific objective of the Affordable Connectivity Outreach Program. Notably, internet service providers (ISPs) were prohibited from applying for the outreach program given the potential conflict of interest that could arise.
The funding for the ACP outreach program amounts to $1.98 per eligible non-enrolled household nationwide. However, there is a wide amount of state-level variation – for example, Alaska, North Dakota, Hawaii and Maine received more than $7 for each eligible non-enrolled household, while Georgia, Massachusetts and Florida received less than $1 per eligible non-enrolled household (see map). Delaware, West Virginia, and New Hampshire did not receive any funds.
Numerous online dashboards are available to help grant recipients figure out their local number of ACP-eligible households and participation rate, assess participation growth between January – December 2022, or visualize how counties compare. Outreach grant recipients have two years to complete their work, although some projections have the ACP running out of money by as early as mid-2024. Further, the Biden administration’s FY2024 budget did not include any additional funding for the ACP.
- The question asked: “To what extent to you agree or disagree with the statement, ‘I know how to do everything I need and want on my device and/or the internet.’” Respondents answering ‘Strongly Agree’ were coded as high digital skill, while those who selected either ‘Disagree’ or ‘Strongly Disagree’ were coded as low digital skill.
Brian Whitacre is Professor and Neustadt Chair in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, where he studies the role of technology in rural economic development.
John B. Horrigan is a Benton Senior Fellow and a national expert on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use.
Alejandro Alvarado Rojas is a doctoral student in communication at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where he investigates the intersection of data governance, technology, and community building.
Hernan Galperin is Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication where he studies Internet policy and social inequality.
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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