Understanding and Driving Enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Digital Beat

Understanding and Driving Enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program

Fitting the monthly cost of a broadband subscription into a low-income household budget is difficult, to say the least, because of the costs of competing necessities like lodging, food, and healthcare. These financial pressures—and unexpected expenses—keep too many people in the U.S. from subscribing to home broadband service—or cause them to drop service at times to make ends meet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress recognized these obstacles for low-income people and created a program—first called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program—to reduce the monthly costs of connectivity. With passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, Congress turned the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program into a longer-term subsidy. Launched in January 2022 with $14.2 billion in funding, the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a critical component of the ongoing federal investment in broadband adoption. Eligible households receive $30/month (and up to $75/month on Tribal lands) to defray the cost of internet service, as well as up to $100 towards the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers.

On January 18, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society hosted a panel discussion on ACP enrollment. Drew Garner, the State Broadband Policy Advisor at Common Sense Media, moderated the panel. He began the discussion by noting the three steps low-income households must complete before they begin enjoying ACP benefits: first, they must confirm that their household is eligible to participate in the program; then they must complete an application to be enrolled in ACP; and, finally, they must choose an internet service provider and pick a plan to subscribe to.

As of January 16, over 15.7 million households are enrolled in ACP. That demonstrates strong demand for the benefit, but, nationally, that's roughly only 30% of all eligible households. As of November 2022, ACP helped with the purchase of nearly 3.2 million devices. While impressive for a new program, there is still clearly much work to be done. 

A number of factors may be contributing to the low enrollment in the program so far: eligible households may not know about the benefit; some may mistrust that the benefit is real and lasting; filling out an application (especially for those without internet access or connected devices) may be difficult; and answers from customer service operations may be confusing. 

Benton Senior Fellow John Horrigan conducts research on the gap between actual ACP enrollment levels versus predicted levels of enrollment at the five-digit zip code level. The work entails using a statistical model to predict enrollment based on a number of factors in a community like the percentage of households with broadband, the percentage of households that meet ACP qualification criteria, geographical density, the presence of public libraries, the percentage of teens out of work, the percentage of occupied homes, and local rent burden. Horrigan's research has identified a number of performance divers:

  • There is a positive correlation between the presence of a local library and ACP enrollment,
  • There is a positive correlation between the percentage of Blacks in a zip code and ACP enrollment,
  • There is a positive correlation between Tribal areas and ACP enrollment,
  • The percentage of people age 65 and over has a negative impact on ACP enrollment,
  • The percentage of foreign-born people has a negative impact on ACP enrollment,
  • The higher the percentage of people burdened by rent has a negative impact on ACP enrollment,
  • Population density has a negative impact on ACP enrollment.

Horrigan believes his work invites exploration into the levers that can change ACP enrollment performance. He stressed the need for outreach campaigns and noted the key roles community anchor institutions, like libraries, can play. 

Dr. Andra Daunhauer is the Executive Director at Equal Access to Broadband, a Vermont nonprofit working on community inclusion through collaboration. Realizing that ACP reimbursements make local broadband providers more sustainable, Equal Access to Broadband was created to help providers connect customers with low incomes. Many Vermont households fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. Their lack of access to broadband amplifies inequities in almost every aspect of life, including education, health care, employment, housing, and banking. While ACP is available to reduce the cost of broadband, the benefit did not reach more than 1 in 12 eligible households because the enrollment system is online and difficult to use for both applicants and companies that provide broadband service.

Equal Access to Broadband bridges low-income customers to local broadband providers by helping eligible customers through the ACP enrollment process. Through their work they have found that:

  • Effective application support is crucial. For many, it takes 2 ½ hrs. per household from start to finish to enroll in ACP. And that doesn’t include the time it takes to actually connect households (many homes are verified and claimed as having service, but actual service is not yet provided).
  • Local broadband providers don’t have time or training to support their population with advocacy, application help, etc. They are focused on service delivery.
  • The ACP-eligible population needs motivation to adopt broadband. Many are used to living with few means—and want fewer bills, not more. Equal Access to Broadband helps the population find reasons to use broadband.

Elizabeth Ramirez is a Digital Navigator at ConnectWaukegan in Lake County, Illinois—just north of Chicago. The urban communities she serves have high immigrant and Spanish-speaking populations. Adult digital literacy rates are low and median household incomes run from about $47,900 to $59,000/year. Recognizing the barriers to successful ACP enrollment, ConnectWaukegan developed seven steps to guide people through the process, from outreach and initial contact to contacting a broadband provider and getting the benefit applied. Along the way, ConnectWaukegan collaborates with public housing authorities, local broadband providers, public libraries, and local health departments. 

Lessons learned from ConnectWaukegan's work include:

  • Outreach and enrollment events rely on two separate occasions 1) Outreach is an opportunity to spread awareness, answer questions, determine the best ways to apply for the ACP, and start pre-enrollment (i.e., show how SNAP info can help enroll); and 2) Enrollment should happen a few days after outreach with time for each applicant, an opportunity to provide personalized one-on-one assistance (i.e., assessing digital literacy, budgetary constraints, options, etc.).
  • Certain resources work better than others for outreach:
    • Tablets work best for enrollment due to camera, portability, and size (Apple preferred due to the airdrop feature to transfer information from one device to another);
    • Portable copiers and scanners also save time and steps for on-site printing, signing, and distribution of applications; and
    • Printed materials—preexisting and new—help to inform the community if tailored for a particular community.
  • Data Collection is important:
    • Tracking demographic information and dates is critical for demonstrating the impact of the work.
    • Additionally, types and numbers of devices per household, number of new home internet users, and assessing digital literacy skills are also key information points.

ACP observers estimate that the program will run out of current funding by mid-2024. So in addition to celebrating ACP's success so far, improving outreach, smoothing the enrollment process, and measuring impact of the program, Drew Garner stressed that digital equity advocates must work to convince the current Congress to address long-term funding needs if we are going to keep connecting low-income households. 

Additional Benton Institute resources on affordable broadband programs

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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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