How Local Governments Are Making the Affordable Connectivity Program Stronger

By Colleen McCroskey, Brian Donoghue, and Corian Zacher

South Bend, Indiana’s Innovation and Technology Department holding a training session for trusted community organizations in advance of ACP outreach

On May 9, 2022, President Biden and Vice President Harris announced that its administration is accepting voluntary commitments from broadband providers to offer $30 a month Internet service plans to qualifying low-income consumers. 

How many households are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in your community? 

Over 11 million households have enrolled in the ACP, a federal benefit that provides a $30 discount on monthly Internet bills, which represents a fraction of the estimated 40 million low-income households that are eligible. Rural LISC, in partnership with Heartland Forward, developed a mapping tool that allows local leaders to identify what percentage of eligible households in each zip code have enrolled in the program. 

Established community broadband projects expanded service to low-income communities even before Congress would consider funding a program like the ACP. 

In the absence of federal subsidies, some municipal providers took a leadership role in building affordability programs into their plans. For example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, offers free high-speed Internet to low-income households with public school students across Hamilton County. 

In Longmont, Colorado, the NextLight municipal broadband network has made huge strides in offering affordable services to their residents, and has used the ACP to continue reaching this goal. NextLight provides free 100-megabit and $19.95 gigabit symmetrical internet service to qualifying individuals and families using a combination of federal support and NextLight’s own funds. Nearly 800 households benefit from these discounts and more continue to be added. In 2019, even prior to the pandemic, NextLight introduced its “Sharing the NextLight” program, and began offering free connections for school families on free and reduced lunch programs. In 2020, when the pandemic forced students and parents alike to work from home, NextLight introduced income-qualified and COVID-hardship discounts as part of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and also expanded Sharing the NextLight to include pre-school and Pell Grant college students. 

With the ACP, NextLight continues to offer the same discounts that were available through the EBB, supplementing the federal discount so that families may continue to receive free or discounted internet. Valerie Dodd, the executive director of NextLight, says that, “As a community-owned provider, these are our neighbors as well as our customers. And it’s important that we help all our families by providing the tools they need to work, learn and engage with the world.It’s exciting to see these connections become a national priority. We hope that someday the whole country can enjoy what so many in Longmont already experience: reliable and affordable high-speed internet service that places the customer first.” 

Communities that are launching new broadband services are including coordination with the ACP to offer free or low-priced service. 

Now that the ACP offers an additional benefit, local leaders are incorporating the program into their network plans, offering free or low-priced service. Yellow Springs, Ohio, is using state grant money to build a fiber network that will offer a $20 discount for low-income households in addition to the ACP’s $30 benefit, which will make their base 300 Mbps symmetrical service free and their Gigabit service $15 a month. Holland, Michigan, proposed a fiber-to-the-home expansion of their downtown broadband pilot. If approved as proposed, the City’s fiber service would cost $12 a month after the ACP discount is applied. 

Municipalities and community organizations are helping to promote affordable Internet programs.

The Administration is partnering on a text campaign with Michigan, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Mesa, Arizona, and New York City to inform eligible households about the ACP and ways to enroll. While this is a helpful step to get the word out, local leaders from cities like Seattle, Washington; Baltimore, Maryland; and Louisville, Kentucky, know that outreach alone is not enough

Recognizing the challenge of low uptake in their community in ACP and other income-qualified assistance programs, South Bend, Indiana’s Innovation and Technology Department leveraged ARPA funding to build out their engagement and outreach efforts. The team is leveraging collaboration, technology, performance management, and data-driven outreach to drive uptake. Following some initial outreach efforts last year that utilized the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Outreach Toolkit, South Bend held community outreach events and training for trusted community partners to improve uptake in hard-to-reach populations.  

Most recently, the team set up a performance management practice to monitor progress and better target their outreach efforts. Based on the most recent data, of the approximately 10,000 families living in South Bend who qualify for ACP, 66% or ⅔ have signed up for the program. Reaching that last ⅓ of residents will be difficult and will require commitment from community partners across the South Bend community, but the infrastructure is now in place to support and target that work. 

A nationwide approach to improving the ACP is only one step to making the program more effective. Local governments across the country are seeking localized resources and support for community initiatives. The Federal Communications Commission can answer this call by providing more specific resources and support for local outreach efforts. 

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