Nearly 40 million households take advantage of an online discount – The 74
No paywall. No pop-up ads. Keep The 74 free for everyone with a generous donation.
Only a quarter of eligible households are taking advantage of a federal program to provide students with free or low-cost internet access, according to a new report released Tuesday.
The $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, part of the infrastructure funding package President Joe Biden signed nearly a year ago, provides a $30 monthly broadband benefit to low-income families and a one-time $100 device voucher. Nearly three-quarters of eligible families live in a community where Internet service providers offer free high-speed service to eligible people.
But mistrust of government and a long demand are hampering efforts to boost enrollment, according to the report from EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that helps make internet service more affordable for students. Currently, only 13 million of the 51.6 million eligible households have signed up.
The Federal Communications Commission, which administers the program, requests a “large amount of documentation” from applicants, said Evan Marwell, CEO of the organization. This means that many do not complete the process and almost half of applications are rejected due to incorrect documents.
“Even if the goal is to bridge the digital divide, the [agency’s] the number one priority is to ensure that there is no waste, fraud and abuse in the system,” Marwell said.
Officials are right to be cautious. Families can enroll in the program if only one child in the family is eligible. But last month, the agency’s inspector general released findings on an Oklahoma case in which internet service providers used the same child’s name, date of birth and social security number. 4 years to claim the benefit over 1,000 times and have claimed over $365,000 in refunds. The case was not isolated, according to the press release.
The FCC has worked with organizations in states to promote the benefit and launched a $10 million pilot program in August to reach families already receiving housing subsidies. Paloma Perez, press secretary to President Jessica Rosenworcel, said the agency is seeking feedback from eligible users and “continually exploring ways to improve the application and registration process based on their feedback.”
Officials have also recruited 40,000 “outreach partners” and held more than 700 local online and in-person events to promote the program, she said.
School districts, Marwell added, play a critical role in simplifying the process by letting families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price meals know that they automatically qualify for the internet discount.
“With one fell swoop, they can overcome this problem of documents,” he said.
He cited the districts of Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts, as examples of major efforts to educate families about the program. As a result, enrollment in these two cities is twice the statewide turnout of 19%. Cities reaching at least 40% enrollment include Buffalo, Cincinnati and Detroit.
Another barrier to participation is that the FCC’s app, which can take at least half an hour to complete, is not mobile-friendly. Many families who don’t have broadband at home only access the Internet through their phones, Marwell said. And it’s only available in English and Spanish.
“The site was not designed with the people who need it most in mind,” Marwell said.
But Perez said the agency improved the app to make applying by phone more user-friendly.
Along with the report, EducationSuperHighway has launched a new website that tells parents what documents to gather before applying. States with higher take-up rates, such as Ohio, Kentucky and Louisiana, Marwell added, have been better off sending letters to families receiving nutrition assistance letting them know they are eligible.
Marwell applauded big internet companies like AT&T and Verizon for offering $30 plans so families don’t have to pay extra.
The remaining challenge is that companies have been more effective at getting the word out to existing customers who qualify than to those who don’t.
States and cities “really need to do the work to reach the unconnected,” Marwell said. “If all you have is access on your phone, you are not logged in.”
Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe to the 74 newsletter