High-speed internet is a necessity of modern life, but expensive monthly payments and other obstacles can make the utility unattainable for many Americans, especially for those living in rural areas or on Tribal lands. It’s a problem that the Biden-Harris administration is looking to address through its $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) launched on December 31, 2021 by the Federal Communications Commission as part of the administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The program is designed to give low-income households monthly discounts toward their internet service, and while the list of providers included in this program varies from state to state, for many areas it includes top ISPs like Verizon, Xfinity, and AT&T. And according to new statistics announced by the White House on Monday, “more than 10 million households” have now enrolled in the program to date.
For a program that’s had less than two months of operation, these numbers may seem on their face to be phenomenal—and they are, in part. However, Claire Park, a policy analyst at Open Technology Institute at New America, says that the number may be a little misleading, as it represents new and carry-over enrollment from a pandemic assistance program: the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB).
“As of December 9, 2021, 9,048,536 households were receiving the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and after the end of the EBB program, 10,078,322 households are [now] enrolled in ACP,” Park says via email. “So roughly 1 million additional households have enrolled to get federal support for their broadband service in the last month and a half.”
This iteration of the program is aimed at households that are 200 percent below the national poverty line (for a three-person household the poverty level is $23,030, according to the ASPE) or those who participate in programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, the Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, or the free and reduced school lunch program.
“The ACP also allows for people to qualify for the benefit based on a wider range of factors, including their participation in WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), making it easier for more low-income households to receive the benefit,” Park says.
Apart from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, Park says the ACP’s closest legislative counterpart is the federal Lifeline program, which has offered support to purchase telecommunications services for nearly four decades. However, the benefits offered by ACP are a big step up, she says.
Through enrollment in this program, eligible households can receive a $30 monthly discount on internet service (Lifeline offers only $9.25) or up to a $75 per month discount (Lifeline offers just $34.25) for households on Tribal lands. Households can also receive up to a $100 discount for a one-time purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet.
Park says these benefits could have a major positive impact on families struggling to meet their monthly payments.
“We’re experiencing the highest inflation in 40 years, and paychecks can’t cover the rising costs of housing, food, utilities, including broadband service,” she says. “The ACP benefit should help lighten the monthly financial burdens that low-income households face and allow them to stay connected and online.”
While 10 million enrollments in the program’s first two months is nothing to scoff at, it still may be significantly less than the number of households eligible for the program, according to a report published by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society that looked at similar criteria for the Emergency Broadband Benefit. In the report, the authors write that 36 million Americans may qualify to receive this discount, meaning a little less than a third of eligible households have enrolled thus far.
Despite the ACP’s current enrollment gap, Park says it’s still too soon to judge the program as a success or a failure, considering that it’s only been live for six weeks. In the months and years to come, Park says she hopes that ACP continues to see positive enrollment and that more service providers can be covered by the ACP benefit.
“[These] are pretty great numbers, especially as the ACP program rules are still being finalized,” she notes.