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When the Emergency Broadband Benefit program (EBB) was created in February of 2021, it was heralded as a monumental step towards equitable broadband access. 

By providing just a $50 subsidy each month, EBB enabled over nine million low-income households to connect to limitless opportunities online. Though impactful, EBB was a temporary solution to America’s issue of inequitable access to broadband. 

That’s why Human-I-T was thrilled when EBB relaunched as a new, more permanent program known as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) on December 31, 2021. 

With the ACP nearing its anniversary, we wanted to discuss how the ACP differs from its predecessor, evaluate its progress, and draw some conclusions about why some populations are feeling its impact more than others.  

What’s the difference between the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit? 

There are substantial differences between the ACP and the EBB program that have contributed to the growth of ACP enrollment over the past year. 

ACP has more funding than EBB and is set to last longer

The EBB program was created with $3.2 billion in federal funding and provided a $50 monthly discount on internet plans. Once that pool of money had been spent, the program was set to expire. 

The ACP, on the other hand, was funded with $14.2 billion, provides a $30 monthly discount for internet plans, and is intended to be a more permanent program. Additionally, the ACP offers recipients a one-time, $100 discount on a laptop computer when they sign up for the internet through the ACP. 

By combining assistance getting online with receiving a new device, the ACP offers families a more holistic solution to becoming digitally connected. 

Many more people are eligible for ACP than EBB

The EBB program was eligible for households who earned up to 135% of the federal poverty line. This is in contrast to the much more generous terms of ACP, which is eligible for households earning up to 200% of the federal poverty line. 

It stands to reason that, by widening the eligibility criteria, the ACP has enticed an additional round of households to apply and collect their benefit. 

ACP offers easier access to affordable broadband than EBB

The EBB program placed no limits on ISPs’ attempts to upsell customers and make them apply the discount to more expensive broadband products. The ACP, however, explicitly directs ISPs to allow ACP customers to apply their discount to any broadband product at the same price and service terms available to other customers. 

The ACP also prohibits ISPs from requiring households to sign up for long-term contracts to access their discounts. Similarly, the ACP disallows ISPs from requiring that a household submit a credit check in order to get their monthly subsidy. The ACP also stipulates that participating ISPs may not disconnect a household for non-payment until after 90 days (far more than the average of 30 days).  

By removing significant barriers to entry, the ACP has made it easier than ever for low-income families to get internet access. 

Which populations have been most impacted by the Affordable Connectivity Program? 

Since being established in early 2022, the ACP has done an adept job at building on the success of the EBB program. At a high-level, over 3.7 million additional households have connected to the internet through the ACP. 

More specifically, the majority of these new ACP sign ups have come from communities of color in major metropolitan areas.This makes sense to a degree, as the ACP’s effectiveness is hinged on already-present internet infrastructure. As a result, rural communities that have been under-connected have been predictably lagging in ACP adoption. 

Additionally, while enrollment in government assistance programs is not a requirement for ACP eligibility, the majority of ACP applicants are on SNAP or Medicaid, with a sizable number of them also utilizing free school lunch or breakfast as well as SSI.  

Though many of these households are just now getting connected to home internet, they have a healthy appetite for broadband. According to OpenVault, ACP participants’ median usage of 499.3 GB of internet data per month is nearly 60% higher than the median internet usage of all subscribers. 

However, these facts alone don’t tell the whole story about who is using the ACP or why certain communities were so quick on the uptake. In fact, there is substantial variation of ACP recipients within cities that can give us clues as to what factors might be driving ACP adoption in certain communities. 

The Affordable Connectivity Program’s Impact in Philadelphia: A Case Study of Two Zip Codes

Let’s evaluate ACP sign ups in two zip codes of a major American city: Philadelphia. The zip codes we’ll be analyzing are 19111 and 19120; but, first, some context about these two locations.

Zip code 19111 contains approximately 63,000 residents, about 59% of which are white. Approximately 57% of the residents here have a high school diploma, and roughly 23% of them have either an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. This zip code has a median household income of roughly $44,000 per year.  

Zip code 19120 has approximately 68,000 residents, nearly 65% of which are black or Latino. Approximately 54.7% of its residents have a high school diploma and just under 17% of them have either an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Though the residents here are nearly as educated as residents in zip code 19111, zip code 19120 has a median household income of just over $34,000 per year – nearly 25% lower than zip code 19111’s.

Given these circumstances, the differences between these zip codes’ ACP adoption rates are initially surprising. Though zip code 19120 only has 8% more residents than zip code 19111, zip code 19120 contains 6,509 ACP subscribers – 204% more than zip code 19111’s 3,179 ACP subscribers. 

However, it’s not that striking when you consider another hidden data point inside of this analysis: the proportion of residents in each zip code which use some form of government assistance. For the purpose of this discussion, we will look at the SNAP enrollment levels in each of these Philadelphia zip codes. 

Zip code 19111 has approximately 7% of its residents enrolled in SNAP, representing roughly 4,800 people. Zip code 19120, on the other hand, has approximately 11% of its residents enrolled in SNAP, representing nearly 8,300 people.

So, with these numbers in-hand, we can make a very rudimentary set of assumptions: 

  1. Average educational level within a zip code has a positive correlation to the zip code’s median household income
  2. Median household income in a zip code has a negative correlation with the proportion of residents on some kind of government assistance
  3. The proportion of residents on government assistance in a zip code has a positive correlation with the proportion of residents signed up for the ACP

With these assumptions made, let’s see if they pan out in another American city: Houston. 

The Affordable Connectivity Program’s Impact in Houston: A Case Study of Two Zip Codes

The Houston zip codes we’ll be looking at are 77023 and 77004; again, some context is needed for a more complete analysis. 

Zip code 77023 contains approximately 29,000 residents, about 62% of which are white. Approximately 38% of the residents here have a high school diploma, and just under 16.5% of them have either an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. This zip code has a median household income of roughly $36,000 per year.  

Zip code 77004 has approximately 33,000 residents, 62% of which are black or Latino. Approximately 42% of its residents have a high school diploma and over 40% of them have either an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Though the proportion of residents of this zip code who graduated college  is over twice as high as residents in zip code 77023, zip code 77004 only has a slightly higher median household income of $41,983 per year.

So far, our first assumption is holding strong: the area with higher average educational attainment have higher median household incomes. Given these facts, we might expect to see that ACP adoption rates are higher in zip code 77023. However, this would be a wrong assumption. 

Though zip code 77004 only has 14% more residents than zip code 77023, zip code 77004 contains 1,714 ACP subscribers – 219% more than zip code 77023’s 780 ACP subscribers. But can a difference in enrollment rates for assistance programs like SNAP explain the disparity in ACP signups? Not really. 

Zip code 77023 has approximately 8% of its residents enrolled in SNAP, representing roughly 2,185 people. Zip code 77004, on the other hand, only has 7% of its residents enrolled in SNAP, representing just 2,267 people – or just 4% more people than the amount enrolled in zip code 77023.

Anchor institutions may be driving enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program

So, with our assumptions now broken, what can be used to explain the disparities in ACP sign ups across communities? 

One potential explanation is that non-white households, generally, are less likely to have broadband at home than white households. As a result, these non-white households may have enrolled in greater numbers due to a greater need. This is a solid, if incomplete, explanation. Let’s return to Philadelphia and look at one familiar zip code – 19120 – and one new zip code – 19124 – to see if we can’t uncover a more satisfactory explanation for these differences. 

Like zip code 19120, the 66,000 residents of zip code 19124 are predominantly black and Latino and are likely to have graduated high school. Residents in this community have a slightly lower median household income than residents of zip code 19120, with a median income of just under $29,000. Both zip codes have nearly the same proportion of residents on SNAP, with 13% of zip code 19124 residents on SNAP

Although similar in size and character, these two communities still display noticeably different rates of ACP enrollment. Whereas only 9.5% of the residents in zip code 19120 enrolled in the ACP, nearly 13% of the residents in zip code 19124 enrolled in the ACP, representing just over 8,000 people. So, what gives? 

Well, one thing that might explain the differences in ACP adoption here is the presence of public anchor institutions in each community. Public anchor institutions are nonmoving, nonprofit institutions that offer services for free at the point of service, such as public schools, libraries, and hospitals. 

More importantly, public anchor institutions are likely to advertise assistance programs like the ACP to its recipients. Thus, we might expect that zip codes with more anchor institutions have greater rates of ACP adoption. 

Going back to our example, we see that zip code 19120 has two public libraries, 19 public schools, and two hospitals. Zip code 19124, on the other hand, has one public library, 20 schools, and four hospitals. At least in this instance, zip code 19124’s slightly higher exposure to anchor institutions may help explain its higher rate of ACP enrollment. 

ACP adoption data underlines the point that digital equity is closely intertwined with social equity 

Now, we at Human-I-T understand that these data are examples of correlation and not causation. However, we also believe that these data points nod to one of the most important developments in the discussions around digital equity. 

Namely, the growing understanding that investments in digital equity without similar investments in social infrastructure to drive technological adoption hinder the effectiveness of digital inclusion programs’ attempts to build social equity. 

Put more simply: digital equity cannot be achieved without social investment, and social equity cannot be achieved without digital equity. The sooner that we recognize that, the sooner that we can start realizing the mission of programs like ACP; that is, to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to realize their full potential online. 

To learn more about how Human-I-T is connecting communities to free, fast internet with the Affordable Connectivity Program, click here

Lo Terry

About Lo Terry