The barriers to getting more unconnected households online
A federal program meant to connect low-income households to the internet isn’t reaching all the people it is supposed to. Here’s how to change that.
The No. 1 barrier to connecting households to the internet is affordability. So in 2021, the federal government created the Affordable Connectivity Program, a historic initiative that aims to help more low-income households get online. But more than a year after its launch, only about a third of eligible households have enrolled in the program.
The ACP currently provides 17 million households with affordable internet. Authorized and funded under the infrastructure law, the $14.2 billion program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. But according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit working to close the digital divide, up to 51 million households are eligible.
Experts say there are two reasons the program isn’t reaching the people it is supposed to: awareness and process.
To improve adoption rates, the Federal Communications Commission this week announced enhancements to its application process to make it easier for eligible consumers to apply and enroll in the program. And last month, it awarded millions in grants to help local communities with outreach.
Getting on people’s radars
Local initiatives are key to boosting enrollment, according to observes, and with millions in additional funding for outreach, cities and community organizations will have more resources to work with the eligible households and close the digital divide.
As of January, about half of eligible households weren’t familiar with the program, according to a recent report by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. A survey found that among about 2,000 low-income households, approximately 34% had never heard of it, and another 19% had heard of it but didn’t know anything about it.
“There is a big lack of awareness that the program even exists, particularly amongst the populations that it is intended to serve,” said Jack Lynch, chief operating officer of EducationSuperHighway.
The organization has worked with cities, local institutions and community-based organizations around the country to better understand the obstacles hindering enrollment and the best ways to overcome those obstacles.
The key to educating more households about the ACP is working with “trusted messengers,” the people or organizations that are already working with unconnected households in some capacity. Schools and libraries can be powerful partners in raising awareness, Lynch said.
For example, school districts in Springfield and Worcester, both in Massachusetts, mobilized to educate students’ families about the programs and the enrollment rates in those cities are roughly double the state’s average.
Other community- and faith-based organizations are also crucial in spreading the word. Black Churches 4 Digital Equity, for instance, organized a national day of action in September to spread awareness and help eligible households sign up.
Working with local groups addresses issues around trust as well. Some people are hesitant to share personal information or worry about incurring costs should the subsidy end.
“If you can mobilize [local organizations and institutions] to raise awareness about the ACP through the regular channels they're already using to engage with the folks, that can be a really, really effective strategy in cutting through those both the awareness and the trust issues,” Lynch said.
And help is on the way. New federal funding is available to cities and organizations looking to bolster their outreach efforts. The White House recently announced $73 million in ACP Outreach grants. The funding will help governments and partner organizations with outreach through initiatives like digital campaigns, enrollment events and door-to-door canvassing.
The Benton report looked at which strategies would be most effective in reaching different demographics. For instance, White households ranked email as the preferred outreach method compared to text messages, but the opposite was true of Black households. Hispanic households, meanwhile, were more likely to favor physical mailers and web advertisements compared to their Black and white counterparts.
Even for those who are aware of the program, signing up for it isn’t an easy process. Two of the biggest barriers to enrollment are understanding eligibility requirements and having the digital skills necessary to sign up.
The application’s user-friendliness impacts whether a household will receive the discount. People who claimed to have high digital skills were twice as likely to successfully sign up compared to those with low skills, according to the Benton report. People using only mobile devices were more likely to need help from a family member or friend when signing up compared to people who also had fixed connections.
Completing an application is far from guaranteeing enrollment. Nearly half of applications are rejected, according to an EducationSuperHighway report. Much of that is due to complications around submitting documents to verify eligibility, Lynch said.
EducationSuperHighway developed an interactive online tool in four languages to help people understand their eligibility and what information they need to have to enroll.
Language barriers are also an issue in the application process, according to Brian Donoghue, deputy director of Next Century Cities. The ACP application is only available in English and Spanish, but according to Census data, significant shares of people who speak other languages speak English “less than very well.”
That has pushed cities and organizations to develop supplemental materials in a greater variety of languages to help non-English speakers better understand the program and whether they’re eligible to enroll.
Those challenges have been recognized by the FCC. In the enhancements announced this week, the agency said it would reduce complicated language, clarify instructions and reduce the number of steps it takes to complete the application.
With these changes and the outreach grants, communities and governments will have a better idea of what’s working and which kinks in the process still need to be ironed out, Donoghue said.
There is still one big challenge for the program on the horizon: funding is expected to run out next year. But while nationwide enrollment is relatively low today, the ACP has made a big difference in a lot of communities, and Donoghue said he expects advocates to push for future congressional support.
“I see there being an incredible amount of value in where the program has gotten us,” he said. “Millions more people are connected to the internet today than there were when this program started.”