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

Free internet could erase the digital divide

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. 

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Laura Ascione
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