- In a new bid to close the digital divide, families whose children get free or reduced-price school meals will be among those qualifying for high-speed internet subsidies under a program announced Monday by the Biden administration.
- The White House estimates almost 40% of American households will be eligible for subsidies lowering internet costs to no more than $30 a month under the administration's $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program.
- This is possible through secured commitments from 20 internet service providers promising to lower prices or raise internet speeds for eligible households, according to the announcement. Federal agencies will begin to reach out to households that qualify for ACP based on their income or participation in federal programs, including free or reduced-price school meals, Pell Grants, Medicaid, Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and others.
Challenges persist to connect eligible families to broadband programs like ACP, said Doug Casey, board chair of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
It will take creativity at the local level to build relationships and partnerships with families to spread the word and get those who are eligible to sign up. From there, Casey said, localities can share their feedback to the federal level, because there’s not a one-size-fits-all national approach.
So far, 11.5 million of the estimated 48 million eligible households are benefittng from ACP, which is funded by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in November, the White House announcement said.
The latest internet provider commitments mean eligible ACP families will often be able to receive high-speed broadband at no cost, President Joe Biden said in a news conference Monday announcing these improvements.
“This means fast internet, good download speeds, with no data caps and no extra fees for millions of American families,” Biden said.
The White House's move to secure more access to the ACP program comes as Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school system in the US, announced its own $50 million effort to provide high-speed internet to its families to address the school system’s digital divide.
While Casey remains optimistic about Biden’s efforts to connect more families to broadband, he said he has seen similar efforts struggle in Connecticut. Casey is also the executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, which the state General Assembly established to integrate technology into schools, libraries, colleges and universities.
For instance, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont launched a $43.5 million initiative in summer 2020 to close the digital divide for students by providing 50,000 laptops, connecting 60,000 students to at-home internet access for a year and creating 200 public hotspots. Even with this investment, Casey said, not as many Connecticut families took up the offer as expected.
“When you give people free broadband and you’re communicating to them and you think you’ve reached them, you still haven’t,” he said. “You need to tell them again and again and again from multiple points of view that this service is available and, more importantly, that it’s valuable.”
People can be hesitant to sign up, because in a world full of scams it may not be initially obvious programs like ACP aren’t trying to fool eligible families, Casey said. There can also be language barriers, he said, or families living in the U.S. without legal permission who don’t feel comfortable sharing their information to prove eligibility. Or some people just don’t see the value or don’t want internet in their homes, Casey added.
While it’s exciting access to the program has expanded, Casey said it’s equally promising that federal agencies will reach out to eligible ACP families they already work with under other programs.
EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on closing the digital divide, has developed a free online toolkit for school districts to help eligible families enroll in ACP. According to a fall report by the group, 18.1 million people live in communities with broadband infrastructure but cannot afford to connect.
The key role districts can play is to drive awareness about ACP, Jack Lynch, chief operating officer of EducationSuperHighway told K-12 Dive earlier this year.
“School districts, they’re a trusted messenger to their families,” he said. “School districts can play a big role in helping to get the word out.”