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How Local Gov Can Support the Affordable Connectivity Program

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program helps people get high-speed Internet at home for $30 a month, but enrollment is at less than 40 percent among eligible households across the country.

Closeup of layers of $100 bills.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) — which is a federal benefit intended to help more people get high-speed Internet at home — is yet to enroll more than 40 percent of households nationwide that are eligible for it.

In fact, as of this writing, enrollment was at 37.4 percent. What this means, essentially, is that many in the U.S. who don’t have high-speed Internet at home are missing out on government money intended to change that. And while experts in digital inclusion say there are many reasons for that enrollment number — among them skepticism of government, as well as lack of awareness that the benefit program exists — they also agree that local and state government have a crucial role to play in raising enrollment rates.

“Keeping in mind that ‘free Internet’ could sound like a scam, all ACP efforts need to include trust — trust in the organization with the ACP message and trust in the individual helping with sign-ups,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “Local and state governments are essential to increasing awareness of this valuable program.”

The program, which is coordinated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), offers households that qualify discounts of up to $30 a month on high-speed Internet, with up to $75 a month if the households are on tribal lands. In addition, participants can get up to $100 to offset the cost of devices they need to access the Internet, including laptops, Chromebooks and tablets.

It’s drawn praise for the folks in American communities who work on closing the digital divide, and many local-level groups — inside and outside of the digital inclusion space — have made enrolling people in it part of their missions. These groups range from immigrant support organizations to community-owned broadband networks. Cities across the country have also worked to get people signed up for the ACP.

Detroit has long been a city that has worked to bridge the digital divide, standing as it does as one of the first to hire a full-time digital inclusion officer. Detroit has also taken a proactive approach to getting its residents signed up for the ACP, said Autumn Evans, deputy director of digital inclusion and equity for Detroit.

This has meant the city itself investing in what Evans called “a full marketing campaign blitz,” which included TV commercials, radio ads and partnerships with local newspapers. In addition, if one visits Detroit’s digital equity hub — Connect 313 — the first thing visible is a giant headline encouraging signing up for the ACP, which can be done either online or by calling a phone number the city provides.

Going past all of that, Evans said the city printed out thousands of applications for the ACP to pass out to people who needed them at events and at community partner sites. The thinking there is that many of the people who most need help from the ACP are not easily reached online.

Detroit works to let people know why they should want to sign up for the program by making sure they know why having Internet at home is valuable.

“Most people don’t realize they are not digitally included,” Evans said. “They’ve coped throughout their lives not being connected. So how do we get them to want to be connected?”

As with so much of digital inclusion work, a key to doing that is for local government to partner with community groups that are also doing the work in the city and have existing relationships with people, getting back to Siefer’s point.

This has also been key to the ACP approach for Philadelphia, said Juliet Fink-Yates, a digital inclusion fellow with that city. The local government has been talking about the program with its community partner groups. It also did a webinar about the program, which it has shared with the digital literacy alliance in the city. As the city has promoted its PHLConnected program — which aims to connect school children there to Internet at home — it has also talked up the ACP.

Also key to the approach in Philadelphia has been making sure the digital navigator team there is trained on how to do outreach for the ACP. One lesson learned is to frame the program in a way that has less potential to make people skeptical.

“Some folks are going to be skeptical of anything that’s free,” Fink-Yates said. “So, we don’t frame it like that.”

Instead, they make sure to always describe the ACP as a new federal benefit. To date, about 129,000 households in Philadelphia have signed up for the ACP.

“It is incredibly helpful,” Fink-Yates said. “It’s fundamentally addressing the affordability question. I can’t imagine being able to address the digital divide without a subsidy that’s part of it, and I think it makes the most sense to have a universal federal subsidy like this.”

Another example of how to help boost enrollment in the ACP can be found in Longmont, Colo., specially with the city-managed fiber Internet provider, NextLight. As a community-owned network, the entire goal of NextLight is to help as many people as possible get access at home, said NextLight Executive Director Valerie Dodd. The ACP, as well as a similar precursor program, is a huge help in doing that. The way it’s currently playing out, NextLight is able to offer families in need high-speed Internet at a cost of roughly $40. The federal benefit gives them a $30 discount, and to help it even more, NextLight has been augmenting that with a $10 discount of its own — resulting in free Internet.

NextLight also promotes the ACP by helping their customers get qualified to receive it. One way people can do that is by calling in and getting help from NextLight. They can also bring documents showing they qualify to the provider’s office and get signed up that way. They’ve also partnered with community groups to get the word out, and they have run outreach campaigns with fliers and door hangers. Another valuable partner has been the Longmont Housing Authority.

“The goal for us is to make it simple with people to get online,” Dodd said, “and boy does it sure help to have these subsidies. It’s also the right thing to do.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.