Subsidized internet service
The Affordable Connectivity Program evolved from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was introduced in 2021.
The EBB offered a larger average subsidy of $50, but the Affordable Connectivity Program offers more protections for consumers. Under the new program, providers can’t upsell consumers and they have to make every plan that they offer available for this program.
Additionally, the Biden administration announced in May that 20 internet service providers, including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have signed on to offer broadband packages for $30/month, making the service effectively free for anyone who qualifies for the benefit and lives in areas with network coverage.
Americans pay a lot for internet
Americans pay some of the highest prices for internet in the world. In a 2020 survey, The Open Technology Institute found the average cost of internet in the U.S. was nearly $70 a month.
Ammon, Idaho was the cheapest area, with an average of $40 a month. Meanwhile internet in Atlanta, Georgia costs an average of $105 a month. By contrast, the average internet bill in Europe was about $45 a month.
For low-wage earners on a tight budget, that high cost has long been a barrier to getting internet access. But forgoing internet service comes with a cost of its own.
“It means that they can't do a video chat or go to school online,” says Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel with Public Knowledge, which works to promote universal access to affordable internet.
“They can't work remotely. They can't do a telehealth visit. They can't talk with their friends.”
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that between 15 and 20 million people in the U.S. don’t have high-speed internet access. Leventoff says the true number is likely even higher.
“Those estimates are notoriously inaccurate, because of the way the FCC was collecting data about who doesn't have broadband,” she says. “Other estimates say it's closer to 40 million. Some other estimates that take into account speed say it's actually closer to 200 million.”
A lack of service providers
Part of the problem is the lack of competition for internet service providers and inadequate infrastructure, especially in rural parts of the country.
“There are a lot of places that have either no providers that offer truly high speed internet or only one, and they are priced like monopolies,” said Marty Newell, chief operating officer of the Center for Rural Strategies, an organization that works to improve economic and social conditions in rural communities.
“It can be an incredibly expensive proposition that if you don't have [high-speed internet], if you don't see the need for it, don't have the skills to take advantage of it, it's not something you're gonna spend money on ahead of other needs.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of internet connection. As offices, schools and shopping centers closed, people turned online for meetings, education and retail, not to mention social connection.
And anyone without high-speed internet was left behind.
Qualifying and applying
Eligibility for the program is broad. If your household income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, you qualify. You’ll also qualify if anyone in your household is enrolled in Medicaid, a meal program — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — public housing assistance or another qualifying federal assistance program.
But it seems that one of the bigger issues with the program is the process for applying.
The application process seems straightforward on paper. Applicants can fill out an online form via the National Verifier, the system used to determine eligibility. But the National Verifier doesn’t have data on many of the qualifying programs, says Leventoff.
“[Applicants] have to go get documentation showing that they participate in a qualifying program, then they have to upload that to the National Verifier,” said Leventoff.
“And then they have to manually get approved. And studies show that of consumers that have to do that, almost 68% of them never finished their applications, because that's really burdensome.”
The Affordable Connectivity Program includes a $100 credit for a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.
Given budget laptops typically cost $400 to $500, you might be wondering how you’re going to get your hands on a device with just a one-time, $100 credit. You’re not alone.
Limited access to devices has been another major barrier to internet access, says Leventoff.
“If your household has multiple people in it and you have school children, what are you doing, then?” Leventoff says. “The program doesn't tackle that element of connectivity.”
One in 10 households in the U.S. don’t have either a laptop, tablet or desktop, says Leventoff.
“It's a shockingly high number, right? Like you would never think. And that doesn't count the number of households that don't have enough devices.”
From lacking infrastructure to a lack of providers, the U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to digital equity, says Leventoff. And she wonders what will happen when the $14.2 billion in funding for the program runs out.
“This isn't going to provide connectivity subsidies forever… This is a great program for now. But we're going to need a permanent program in place. And it's for policymakers to start thinking about that.”
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