The jungle book

How the Affordable Connectivity Program can bridge the digital divide

As many aspects of daily life, such as employment, education and healthcare go online, unequal access to computers and high-speed internet known as Broadband can contribute to a lack of opportunity. This gap has been dubbed variously – the digital divide, the connectivity divide and the homework gap – and falls under the broader concept of digital inclusion. The National Alliance for Digital Inclusion defines digital inclusion as activities that “ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use information and communication technologies”. According to the 2020 American Community Survey (ACS), just over 13% of households in the Fourth District (which includes all of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky and northern Virginia- Western) lived without access to the Internet, let alone broadband; this number jumps to almost 19% if we consider only low- and moderate-income (LMI) regions.

The Internet: a general term that includes any method of online connection technology, including dial-up, broadband, and satellite
Broadband: a type of high-speed Internet service that provides Internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload
Digital Equity: a condition in which individuals and communities can participate fully in society, democracy and the economy because they have the technical capacity to do so
Digital inclusion: activities that need to take place to ensure that all individuals have access to the digital world, including digital adoption and digital literacy

Source: Federal Communications Commission and National Alliance for Digital Inclusion

Lack of broadband access and the unaffordability of broadband subscriptions are two barriers that prevent households from fully participating in digital spaces. These notes from the field examine these barriers to broadband and how the new Affordable Connectivity Program can help.

Broadband access and affordability are considerations for connectivity

When working to create digitally inclusive communities, both broadband access and affordability must be considered. In the Fourth District, many residents cannot access broadband services because their communities lack the technology. And often, even if a community has adequate technology, broadband services are unaffordable, especially for IMT households.

Access and affordability can manifest in different ways for urban and rural communities. In urban areas, cost is a major barrier to accessing devices and monthly broadband subscriptions. According Broadband now, 8 out of 10 households in the Fourth District states cannot afford a broadband subscription of $60 a month or more. Further away, The Brookings Institute posits that urban areas are often excluded from conversations about digital equity because households in the same community can vary widely in their ability to afford broadband. In other words, as long as broadband is available, the fact that many cannot afford the service is often overlooked. In contrast, rural areas have broadband availability issues due to topographical challenges and low population density which make broadband installation more expensive (and therefore less attractive to) Internet Service Providers (ISPs). ). In addition, high broadband installation costs drive up subscription costs for households.

Although households in urban and rural communities face distinct challenges, lack of internet access is consistent across all areas of the Fourth District. ACS data shows rural and micropolitan areas1 Regions have the highest proportion of households without internet access, broadband or otherwise. Overall, Fourth District counties mirror national trends for households without Internet access. Additionally, computers are an essential part of digital inclusion, and approximately 700,000 households in the Fourth District reported having no access to a computer. Households in rural counties generally have less access to computers than other Fourth District counties, showing similar trends to the nation. It is unclear whether households are denied broadband access due to cost or lack of ISPs and places to buy computers. If so, some programs, such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), could have a significant impact in making broadband and devices more affordable.

Understanding the Affordable Connectivity Program

ACP could prove to be a valid solution to the lack of affordability and access to broadband and computers in the Fourth District. Developed under the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act, the CPA subsidizes broadband services and devices for low-income households. A household may qualify for the CPA’s $30 monthly internet rebate and a one-time $100 computer rebate if it meets one of the following conditions: total income is 200% or less than federal poverty guidelines (i.e. $55,500 for a family of four in the Fourth District), they are participating in a government assistance program (for example, SNAP, Social Security, or Pell Grants), or they are receiving already vital benefits. For many households, the reduction would significantly reduce the burden of the cost of a broadband subscription.

However, there are barriers to ACP participation. The program is voluntary for ISPs, and some regions may not have ISPs participating in the program. Additionally, applications for households require several steps to verify identity and income. After applying, a household must find and contact a participating provider to activate the discount. These steps could be a barrier for working households or those who may not fully understand the requirements.

There is no exact way to compare ACP eligibility to ACP participation by county since eligibility data is at the family level, and ACP participation is at the household level. Given this caveat, we estimated that many households in the Fourth District are eligible for PCA and that there is a demonstrated need for more affordable services, but the program is underutilized (Figure 1). Still, the Fourth District, as a whole, has a higher turnout than the nation. Metropolitan, micropolitan and rural areas all experience a gap between ACP participation and eligibility, with the largest gap occurring in rural areas.

There are several reasons why adoption might be low in the Fourth District. Households may not know ACP exists or are eligible, some find the application process cumbersome, or there may not be a participating ISP in the area.

Figure 1. CPA Eligibility vs. Participation in Metropolitan, Micropolitan, and Rural Fourth District Counties

Notes: ACP participation until June 1, 2022 for households. Eligibility data based on poverty status at the family level. Sources: Universal Service Administrative Company, 2020 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, author’s calculations.

To advance

To reap the full benefits of PCA, barriers to participation must be identified and overcome. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the program is that ISPs are not mandated to participate. In areas where there are no participating ISPs, households cannot benefit from the program even if they know about it and are eligible for it. To advance, additional federal funding for Broadband Projects is available for states that require all ISPs to participate in the CPA.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Federal Reserve System have taken an active role in engaging communities around digital equity and inclusion. In the fall of 2022, the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland and St. Louis will host digital equity training to help community leaders create statewide broadband rollout plans.

We hope this Notes from the field can raise awareness of CPA and encourage greater participation among households in the Fourth Arrondissement. With greater publicity from the CPA, an increase in the number of participating ISPs, and continued funding from the CPA, broadband can become more accessible to everyone. Better access to online spaces can create opportunities for social and economic mobility and reduce the digital divide, especially for IMT households.