A new mapping tool shows where households have taken advantage of a federal stimulus program that defrays some of the cost of broadband for lower-income Americans.

The tool, which was created through a partnership between Rural LISC and the nonpartisan nonprofit Heartland Forward, was designed to help target families that may qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) but who aren’t participating.

“The tool was built because we believe knowledge is power,” said Christa Vinson, Rural LISC broadband and infrastructure program lead, during an interview with the Daily Yonder.

In this case, that knowledge could help identify communities where families are likely eligible for the program but haven’t enrolled.

Vinson said she hopes “digital navigators” — people who help families get hooked up to and use the internet — and others working on digital inclusion “will expand their local digital equity initiatives by using this information to get a richer sense of where there are pockets of opportunities to really support folks with their participation in the digital realm.”

The program provides a discount of up to $30 a month toward internet service and a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. Residents of tribal lands can receive a discount of up to $75.

The interactive map overlays enrollment data from the previous iteration of the discount program (called the Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB) with data on the communities that have the highest levels of eligibility for the program. The result shows where there are large proportions of households who qualify for the program but didn’t enroll.

The eligibility feature of the map is based on Census data of households that are at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines (one of the qualifiers for EBB). According to the map’s estimate, the national average of EBB enrollment for households that were eligible was just 17%. In the new ACP program, eligibility increases to 200% of the federal poverty level.

There are plans to update the map with data from ACP, said Liz Lima, a current American Connection Corps Fellow who built the map. 

“We do have to rearrange some of the eligibility estimates, unfortunately,” Lima said. 

One surprise for the team in doing the research was discovering some of the pockets of high rates of usage of EBB, Vinson said, noting the Navajo Nation as an example. 

“We observed very high enrollment, and what our data tell us is the ‘what,’ but our data don’t really tell us the ‘why,’” she said. “And so we think it’s incumbent upon those invested in digital inclusion work to really understand in their community, what the profile of digital inclusion support looks like, who are those actors that are offering digital inclusion support to community members, and what influence that activity may have had on EBB enrollments. So when we look at places like the Navajo Nation, we’re seeing a very high enrollment, we can only speculate the reasons for that.”

The broadband discount programs require both deployment and adoption, said Caitlin Cain, vice president of LISC. And this mapping tool helps with adoption, because it highlights where some of these gaps exist across the country.

“That’s really helping us highlight geographically where we really need to double down on our commitment through a digital navigator programming, and then also our outreach to other stakeholder groups that can help us on the adoption angle,” she said. 

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