FCC grant programs aim to boost ACP enrollment

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week kicked off a program to support entities working on boosting enrollment in the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a monthly broadband subsidy. The ACP was established as part of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed by President Biden one year ago today.

In a public notice, the commission said the ACP Outreach Grant Program aims to "expand diverse outreach efforts nationwide, strengthen partner networks by empowering them to mobilize people and organizations to help build program awareness, with the ultimate goal of increasing ACP enrollment."

The first two of four such grant programs to kick off with FCC funding are the National Competitive Outreach Program ($60 million) and the Tribal Competitive Outreach Program ($10 million). Applications are open for funding for both programs through January 9, 2023. The FCC expects to make its awards on or before March 10, 2023. It anticipates awarding 200 to 400 projects with grants of $50,000 to $1 million each, according to the NOFO.

Those eligible to apply for grants include state and local governments, public housing agencies, workforce development training organizations, nonprofits, community anchor institutions, education organizations and others. The funding notice also lists "ineligible entities" as broadband providers, broadband industry groups, trade associations that represent broadband providers and other industry affiliates.

The FCC also said it will release funding notices for the other two programs – Your Home, Your Internet and ACP Navigator Pilot – on November 21. Your Home, Your Internet aims to increase ACP awareness with federal housing assistance recipients, while the ACP Navigator program will support groups that are helping people complete and submit ACP applications. Each program has $5 million in funding.

Notably, this marks the first time the FCC is administering a grant program. As such, the commission hopes to learn from it.

"We will really be looking to you to help us collect this data ... if you have been selected for funding, and provide data based on these measures on a quarterly basis as part of your progress report, so that we can truly tell and be able to tell a story on the impact that this grant program is having," said Miriam Montgomery with the FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau on a webinar today introducing the programs.

Program challenges

The ACP is widely lauded as a good and necessary program by Internet service providers (ISPs) and community advocacy groups alike. But the first year of the program's rollout has also been met with challenges, from reports of fraud to difficulty enrolling participants.

While roughly 40 million households are eligible for the benefit, 14.9 million have enrolled so far according to the latest data. The program is growing by roughly 400,000 to 500,000 households per month.

Some reports have shown that the ACP is struggling to reach those who need it most.

In September, for example, the Loudoun Broadband Alliance (LBA), a nonprofit in Loudoun County, Virginia, released a report showing that "approximately 3.2% of Loudoun County residents fall below the poverty level, but only 1% of Loudoun households were enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) as of June 30, 2022."

On today's webinar, FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Chief Alejandro Roark noted that "affordability is the number one most cited barrier to broadband adoption," and that while the ACP is reaching over 14 million households, "we know that many more continue to be eligible and many more remain unconnected or under connected."

The new grant funds aim to address such challenges and boost enrollment as the program enters its second year.

Should that work, the federal government will need to address another challenge: ensuring the program is fully funded. With no additional funding, estimates show that the ACP will be depleted by 2025.

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Nicole Ferraro, editor, Light Reading, and host of "The Divide" podcast.

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