USC Annenberg has released a study of the impact of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the low income subsidies offered to offset broadband costs near the start of the pandemic. The timing is good, as the program shifts from a temporary solution to more permanent solution – Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The quick gist is that it looks like it helped a lot of people stay online, but it spur more people to get online, which is unfortunate…
The EBB program was created to mitigate the short-term impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable households, reducing the cost burden of broadband connectivity for recipients. As the program transitions into a longer-term subsidy, it is important to take stock of its impact and adjust course as needed. Overall, the findings of this study suggest there is significant room to improve program targeting and outreach efforts, as well as to facilitate enrollment procedures for key groups of potential beneficiaries.
Critically, the findings suggest that the primary impact of the EBB program was to alleviate the cost burden for households that were already connected pre-pandemic, with only modest impact in bringing new households online. Alleviating the cost burden of broadband for vulnerable households is an important policy goal, as evidence from other studies suggests that low-income households often cut on essentials expenses (such as food and clothing) to pay for Internet service. Nonetheless, for a program that offered a subsidy level over five times higher than Lifeline, uptake fell significantly below expectations. The evidence points in particular to weak demand for residential connectivity plans, despite the fact that the $50 EBB subsidy covered about 70% of the typical cost of residential broadband in the U.S.
A key task for the new ACP program is to significantly expand coverage, particularly in areas with low residential connectivity pre-pandemic. The findings in this study suggest that renewed outreach efforts are urgently needed in rural and less populated areas, among older adults, and in communities with a large share of foreign-born residents. This is consistent with findings from recent research showing that low levels of awareness about the EBB program, as well as lack of appropriate information about eligibility and the application process, depressed participation rates among key potential beneficiaries.11 Previous research also indicates that targeted outreach efforts are likely to be more effective if channeled through organizations with strong local community ties (such as schools and senior centers), and that these organizations can also play a key role by offering technical support for onboarding those with limited digital literacy.
Leveraging enrollment in other social safety net programs with high participation rates (such as SNAP, WIC and NSLP) is another key outreach strategy, albeit one that will require cross-agency collaboration and appropriate funding. Participating providers also have an important role to play in disseminating clear information about ACP program eligibility, contract terms and service pricing, a statutory mandate that the FCC should closely monitor and enforce. Minimizing enrollment procedures is also critical, as is flexibility in the documentation required to verify eligibility.
Finally, given the level of funding and the long-term duration of the ACP program, a more robust monitoring system must be put into place to evaluate the program’s cost-effectiveness on an ongoing basis. This will require more extensive data reporting from participating providers, including information about pricing, service speeds, access technology, data usage patterns, and beneficiary location at the census tract or block group level. 13 In addition, regular surveys of existing and potential ACP beneficiaries should be conducted to better understand barriers to participation and potential adjustments to key program parameters such as subsidy level, enrollment procedures, certification rules and device offerings.