The White House is taking a victory lap over its efforts to close the digital divide, announcing Monday that 10 million households have signed up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which was funded to the tune of $14.2 billion under the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The program, designed for low-income Americans, offers eligible households up to $30 off their monthly internet service, or up to $75 off for those living on tribal lands.
The Affordable Connectivity Program grew out of the pandemic-related funding provided under the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offered low-income households up to $50 off their monthly bills. That program came together quickly and was marked early on by technical troubles that made it nearly impossible for some Americans who had been approved for the program to actually sign up for service with their internet providers.
Some providers were also found to be stretching the rules laid out by the FCC, which required people enrolled in the program to actively opt in to full-price internet plans whenever the funding for the discounts ran out. That approach was designed to prevent low-income Americans from getting hit with surprise bills they couldn't afford. But Protocol found that Spectrum was requiring people to opt in to "undiscounted" coverage as a condition of enrollment, a requirement the company did away with shortly after Protocol reported on it. Verizon was also caught forcing customers into more expensive plans in order to enroll.
The false starts raised questions about whether the EBB program was really making a dent in the digital divide. One study last summer estimated that 36 million households might actually be eligible for the program. At the time, just under 4 million households had enrolled.
The author of that report, John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, said the progress that's been made since then is "encouraging." "In a fairly short time frame, the program that didn't exist has ramped up to a good level," he said.
But even with 10 million households enrolled, tens of millions of eligible households may still be left behind. According to Horrigan's calculations, in 2021, there were 38 million households at or below 200% of the poverty level in the U.S., which would make them eligible for the program. That, he said, means "more elbow grease" needs to be applied in terms of outreach.
While Monday's announcement was a chance to celebrate the success of the program, it also marked the beginning of a dedicated push to get more Americans enrolled. The White House said the FCC and its local partners will be holding 10 enrollment events over the next month to both raise awareness for the program and train navigators who can help people enroll.