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How to bridge the digital divide? Affordable Connectivity Program Evaluation

Last year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) allocated $65 billion to address disparities in broadband access across the country. A key piece of legislation, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), subsidizes broadband subscriptions for low-income households. However, uptake of the program has been low so far, suggesting that PCA may not yet be reaching many of the underserved households targeted by the legislation.

This article explores the context of the Affordable Connectivity Program and its levels of participation in the Fifth District during its first year of operation. The challenges small Internet Service Providers (ISPs) face in enrolling people in the program and complying with its regulatory requirements highlight an opportunity: reducing administrative burden and providing additional training and advertising could enable greater participating in the ACP.

Who is eligible for ACP?

The CPA’s goal is to address the adoption component of the digital divide by making broadband more affordable for households in areas where the infrastructure exists. Households with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines or households with a member participating in a recognized federal assistance program are eligible for CPA.

The CPA, which is facilitated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), offers a rebate of $30 per month on Internet subscriptions for eligible households and a one-time rebate of $100 for the purchase of a device (laptop , desktop, tablet).

Participation in the ACP

Rural LISC, a community development organization, has tracked PCA participation at the postcode level across the country. They estimate the percentage of a zip code’s population that participates in CPA by dividing the number of enrollees (based on administrative data from the Universal Service Administrative Company) by the estimated number of households that live at 200% the federal poverty line (using data from the American Community Survey of the US Census). As of May 1, 2022, the average CPA turnout by postcode is estimated at 17% nationally, while total turnout as a share of national eligibility is estimated at 27%.

Most ZIP Codes in the Fifth District fall into the lower CPA participation bracket, with 0-24% of eligible households registered. However, there are adoption hotspots in and around the district’s major towns. The trend is not surprising, since the CPA cannot help households in areas that do not yet have broadband infrastructure, many of which are located outside major metropolitan areas. (Billions of dollars in the IIJA have been allocated to improve broadband infrastructure, but it will likely take years to use those funds to connect most unserved areas of the country.)

The maps below illustrate ACP participation for three of the largest cities in the Fifth District, all of which have extensive broadband infrastructure. Washington, DC contains the highest ACP turnouts, followed by Baltimore and Charlotte.

The role of the internet service provider

The low level of ACP participation in 2022 surprised ISPs. “Many people [in our organization] I thought we were going to be very busy with inquiries about ACPs and ACP-related facilities, but that expectation quickly evaporated,” says Kara Chandeysson of Ting Internet, a growing national ISP that launched for the first time in Charlottesville, Va., in 2015. “What we have instead noticed is that many eligible residents — both in the state and across the country — are unaware from the program. challenge to small ISPs such as Ting.

Beyond educating the public about who is eligible for ACP and how to sign up, the administrative process of complying with program regulations can be cumbersome for ISPs. “We normally charge $50 per month for the service, but $20 per month for ACP subscribers. After charging eligible subscribers the reduced rate of $20 per month, we need to request the $30 refund through a government website portal,” says Alan Fitzpatrick of Open Broadband. , a small ISP based in North Carolina. Fitzpatrick described the process, which includes collecting sensitive personal information from subscribers (the last four digits of social security numbers, salaries, etc.) and spending hours on the phone with a help desk to navigate through the portal’s multi-layered approval process. “With what we have learned about the process, it will be much easier to move forward, and we will continue to support the program by enrolling eligible subscribers who apply for the discount.”

PCA Optimization

The administrative burden the CPA places on small ISPs to educate and register users could deter them from advertising and expanding the program. “We may be missing opportunities to fully engage rural areas in bridging the digital divide,” says Christa Vinson of Rural LISC. “The sign-up and refund stages are important for small ISPs and can hinder adoption in rural areas. We want this program to reach as many eligible households as possible and welcome any efforts to streamline participation for all providers.”

The CPA’s reliance on private business is not a new feature of a government benefits program. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal wellness program that provides nutritional benefits, has relied on private retailers to provide food access to eligible individuals for more than 80 years. Stores are required to qualify and register as SNAP retailers to participate, but are not responsible for enrolling individuals in the program or requesting refunds. SNAP users swipe a government-issued EBT card at checkout and the funds are deposited directly into the store’s account. Rewiring the CPA to mimic SNAP (for example, the FCC provides CPA-enrolled households with vouchers to pay ISPs) could reduce the administrative burden on ISPs and ultimately connect more eligible households to broadband service.

Looking forward

The ACP is a major step forward in the nation’s progress towards bridging the digital divide. However, the success of the program will depend on reaching targeted residents through advertising and education. A solution to some of these challenges may be on the horizon: On August 8, 2022, the FCC issued an order establishing the Affordable Connectivity Awareness Grant program to “engage partners nationwide to help inform ACP-eligible households on the program in their local communities, and to provide these partners with the necessary funding and resources to increase participation.”