Louisiana is Depending on the ACP to Eliminate the Digital Divide
Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Louisiana is Depending on the ACP to Eliminate the Digital Divide
States are banking on the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program to ensure broadband is affordable for their low-income residents. But with funding dwindling, 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.
Affordability is a key barrier to broadband adoption, especially for low-income households. Some 15 percent of home broadband users in the United States said they had trouble paying for their high-speed internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes 34 percent of those with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.
In Louisiana, households with low incomes are far less likely to subscribe to broadband service (59.5%) than the average American household in the same income bracket (67.5%).
Through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, Congress allocated $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program and asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish rules for a monthly discount for broadband service delivered to low-income households. In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress modified and extended the EBB to a longer-term broadband affordability program: the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The infrastructure law also allocated over $14 billion to ACP subsidize services for low-income households. But if Congress does not allocate additional funding soon, the FCC will have to shut down the ACP in 2024 and over 20 million households will be at risk of losing internet access.
Over the last few months, the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity (known as ConnectLA) has been coordinating the state's first assessment of the state's digital divide. Louisiana is aiming to achieve digital equity—that is, all individuals and communities will have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. For Louisiana, that means access to affordable broadband, opportunities to obtain the appropriate devices, accessible applications, and support to acquire the digital skills needed to improve people's quality of life. Louisiana wants to eliminate the digital divide by 2029.
Public engagement activities with stakeholders across Louisiana illustrated that low-income households, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, and other "covered populations" in all parts of the state face complex barriers and challenges centered around the core themes of broadband affordability, access, digital skills attainment, and accessibility. Louisiana households with low income are far less likely to subscribe to broadband service (59.5%) than the average American household in the same income bracket (67.5%).
Louisiana's plan for connecting low-income residents and achieving digital equity relies heavily on federal support. ConnectLA identified two crucial federal programs—the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program and Lifeline program —that aim to address the issue of broadband affordability. By participating in the ACP, broadband service providers receive up to $30/month for providing service to low-income households. Broadband providers pass on that savings to low-income subscribers. If the provider offers and the consumer picks a plan that regularly costs $30/month or less, the consumer receives that service for free. The service can be for standalone broadband or a bundle of services including broadband, telephone, texting, and the rental fee on the equipment (like a modem) that makes the service possible. Through Lifeline, carriers are reimbursed up to $9.95/month for providing phone, internet, or bundled services to low-income households.
In 2021, about 1.7 million Louisiana residents (38.2% of the total population) were eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program using household income criteria alone (i.e. the household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines). Participation in SNAP, Medicaid, and the Free and Reduced-Price School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program also qualifies an individual as eligible for ACP. Louisiana had 822,600 SNAP participants in 2022. About 45 percent of Louisiana’s total population (2,032,783) were enrolled in Medicaid in January 2022. Additionally, about 403,000 Louisiana students were eligible for free and reduced lunch/breakfast in the 2019-2020 school year (56.8% of all Louisiana students).
The state is a leader in Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment: over 50 percent of eligible Louisianians participate in ACP while the national average is just 37 percent. Over 490,000 households in Louisiana currently rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program.
But to eliminate the digital divide, the state aims to increase ACP enrollment. In its digital equity plan, ConnectLA set a short-term goal of increasing ACP enrollment to over 635,000 and a long-term goal of 980,000 enrollees.
With the crucial role the Affordable Connectivity Program plays in Louisiana's digital equity plan and mindful of the coming funding shortfall, ConnectLA coordinated a letter of 48 stakeholder organizations to Louisina's entire Congressional delegation. The stakeholders said:
Funding for the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program will expire in the summer of 2024 unless it is reauthorized. Granting access to high-speed internet without addressing affordability will prevent hundreds of thousands of Louisianians from maximizing the effects of this service on their lives. Thus, reauthorization of ACP funding is a crucial step toward eliminating the digital divide. We strongly encourage you to support this worthwhile goal.
ConnectLA has partnered with internet service providers, nonprofits, academic organizations, economic development organizations, public safety entities, agriculture communities and others to develop and implement tactical solutions to address the digital divide. But it fears its work will not be "beneficial for all Louisianians without the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program."
As of June 2023, the ACP has spent down nearly $9.6 billion and is projected to be depleted by mid-2024 or even faster if states like Louisiana are successful in their efforts to increase enrollment. If Congress does not allocate additional funding soon, internet service providers will begin in early 2024 to inform ACP subscribers that the program is ending. And the over half a million households in Louisiana that receive the benefit now will be at risk of losing internet access.
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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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