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Despite unconnected households being eligible for free internet, complex barriers prevent enrollment and perpetuate the digital divide.

Free internet could erase the digital divide


Despite unconnected households being eligible for free internet, there are complex barriers that prevent enrollment

Local leaders must play a critical role in closing the digital divide for 18 million American households that have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect, according to a new report.

The urgent prompt comes from EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit with a mission to close the broadband affordability gap. The organization released its second No Home Left Offline report on the action needed to accelerate Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) adoption.

The ACP is a $14.2 billion federal broadband benefit funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that provides eligible households with a monthly discount of up to $30 per month (up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands) and a one-time $100 discount toward a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. 51.6 million households, including 17.7 million unconnected households, are eligible for the ACP, yet only 13 million (25% of those eligible) have enrolled.

Over the past year, closing the broadband affordability gap has become a national priority. The report finds that our nation’s Internet Service Providers have stepped up, and 74% of ACP-eligible households are covered by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) offering a high-speed internet plan for $30 per month or less, making the plan free with the ACP benefit.

Despite 12.9 million ACP-eligible, unconnected households having the opportunity to take advantage of free internet, the report outlines the complex awareness, trust, and enrollment barriers that prevent households in the nation’s most under-resourced communities from enrolling. It also announces new data, tools, and best practices to help states and cities overcome them. Key report highlights include:

  • 51.6 million U.S. households are eligible for the ACP, yet only 13 million households (25% of those eligible) have enrolled.
  • The ACP has the potential to connect 17.7 million households that are ACP-eligible and unconnected.
  • The ACP enrollment process is a significant challenge for eligible households using the National Verifier. 45% of applications are rejected, and many more fail to complete the 30-45 minute enrollment process.
  • Cities in every state are proving that we can do dramatically better. The national best practice for ACP adoption is 61%, and large cities, such as Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Tulsa, have already achieved adoption rates of over 45%.
  • 74% of ACP-eligible households are covered by an ISP offering a “free with ACP” plan (i.e., high-speed internet plans for no more than $30 per month). That amounts to 37.9 million eligible households, including 12.9 million that are unconnected.
  • Two-thirds of eligible households are already beneficiaries of one or more government benefit programs that automatically qualify them for the ACP, giving states a targeted channel to raise ACP awareness and help participants enroll. 

Related:
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State and City Leaders Play A Critical Role

Highlighting commitments from a bipartisan group of 25 governors who are making ACP adoption a priority in their states, EducationSuperHighway points to the critical role state and local leaders can play given their deep understanding of their communities, strong connection to residents, and ability to effectively engage trusted messengers and community influencers. They recommend state and local leaders take immediate action to launch ACP awareness campaigns and develop ACP enrollment support strategies that leverage Digital Equity Act funds to enable outreach to and support for unconnected households by community-based organizations and trusted institutions.

“No Home Left Offline starts with ensuring every eligible American household knows about the Affordable Connectivity Program, can easily enroll, and then sign up for high-speed internet service,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway. “We applaud the bold leadership of those governors who are making ACP adoption a priority for their states and are ready to support local leaders in removing the barriers that keep millions unconnected.”

To support local leaders in this work, EducationSuperHighway has released an ACP Enrollment Dashboard, providing states and cities with the most up-to-date data on their number of ACP-eligible households, the number that have enrolled, and the number that still lack a high-speed home connection. The dashboard equips state and city planners to effectively target new federal broadband funding to support ACP awareness and adoption efforts. It also shows the progress needed to bring every state to the national best practice adoption rate of 61% of eligible households.

New Tools to Accelerate Affordable Connectivity Program Adoption

Alongside the report, EducationSuperHighway has also announced best practices to help cities launch awareness campaigns to ensure their residents know about the ACP and enrollment support tools that help households get through a challenging sign-up process that rejects 45% of applicants.Their Affordable Connectivity Program Adoption Toolkit for Local Leaders is a step-by-step guide that contains outreach templates, training materials, and best practices to help leaders get the word out to eligible households.

They have also launched GetACP.org, a virtual mobile assistant that simplifies the ACP enrollment process by providing real-time support to help eligible households determine the easiest way to qualify. The mobile website is available in four languages and helps applicants overcome critical barriers in the enrollment process by helping them identify the documents needed when applying and find “free with ACP” broadband plans available at their address.

Without high-speed Internet access at home, Americans can’t send their children to school, work remotely, or access healthcare, job training, the social safety net, or critical government services. Achieving national best practice ACP adoption rates can significantly accelerate closing the broadband affordability gap, connecting two-thirds of the 18 million households that have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect. 

This press release originally appeared online.

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