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Affordable Internet Connectivity Is Possible for Everyone

Dec. 16, 2021, 9:00 AM

Imagine a government program that would connect millions of financially-challenged households to broadband in their homes. In a world of “If it sounds too good to be true…” you can expect that skepticism reigns. Fortunately, the Affordable Connectivity Program is not only a real program, but Congress allocated about $14 billion to help lower-income households pay for internet service. The catch? People have to know the program exists and believe it will deliver on its promises.

Congress agreed—yes, our Congress—on a plan to get Americans from rural communities, urban cities, and mountainous reservations connected. In December 2020, this cooperation across party lines resulted in creation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which has proven to be invaluable for the over eight million households enrolled in the program since May.

The ACP will continue the work of the EBB program, providing qualifying households a monthly subsidy for internet service, when the ACP takes the EBB’s place on Jan. 1, 2022.

There was one oversight with the EBB program, however, that should be considered for rollout of the Affordable Connectivity Program: Congress neglected to allocate any funds to get the word out.

Lessons From the EBB Playbook

This time around, Congress earmarked $100 million for outreach and education “regarding the broadband and communications affordability programs of the Federal Communications Commission” in the Build Back Better Framework, but even if it doesn’t pass the Senate, there are strategies for success of the ACP that can be taken from the FCC’s EBB program playbook.

Skepticism was a hurdle for uptake of the EBB program, which offers $50 a month to help lower-income Americans pay for internet service amidst the pandemic, but the FCC deployed its partnerships to strategically tackle trust issues.

The FCC counts more than 32,000 EBB partners nationwide, from food banks to libraries. “We knew that we were going to have to reach out to trusted individuals in communities who know what’s happening in their own backyard and will make this program accessible and possible for people who might otherwise not trust that we can really deliver on what we say we’ve got with it,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel explained during an Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) Connected Roundtable.

The FCC also held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national organizations, local organizations and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as more than 30 Spanish language presentations. The FCC even got the National Football League to run public service announcements on the EBB program.

These trusted partners have helped to spread the word that the benefit is legitimate and people don’t have to switch providers to take advantage of the groundbreaking opportunity to connect.

Additional Steps to Get Word Out

But with the Affordable Connectivity Program, there’s still more to be done to make sure that every American hears about the program and has a real opportunity to take advantage of it.

  • To ensure that eligible households learned about the EBB program, the FCC took several intentional steps, including coordinating with the Department of Labor to reach recipients of state unemployment compensation and with the Department of Education to notify Pell grant recipients, since eligibility often overlaps. The FCC should also explore automatic enrollment in the ACP when individuals sign up for other low-income assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.
  • Local organizations and leaders, from churches to Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) should step up, reach out to the FCC, and volunteer to serve as ambassadors for the ACP. The potential positive impact of universal connectivity for communities across America is immense, from better education to more accessible health care to new jobs and greater economic growth.
  • Congress should study the success of the EBB program and apply what can be learned to the ACP. The FCC analyzed ZIP code data to assess uptake of the EBB program and is conferring with local organizers and carriers where penetration is highest to understand what they’ve been doing to promote the EBB, why it’s worked and how they can copy it. There’s something to be discovered from the differences in EBB—and even Lifeline —participation rates across the map.

The FCC’s recent efforts resulted in more families signing up for the EBB program in just six months than the 6.5 million enrolled in the 26-year-old Lifeline program. For the Affordable Connectivity Program, we now have a model to connect and keep connected qualifying households across the country.

Getting the word out about the ACP will double down on our country’s historic investments in broadband. As FCC Chair Rosenworcel recently said: “We’ve got a generational chance to really make sure that no household, no person…in this country is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Every American deserves the opportunity to participate in the digital present and future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Kim Keenan is co-chair of the D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance.