ACP in the 313: Closing Detroit’s Digital Divide

Blog Post
June 1, 2023

Imagine if you couldn’t afford the internet access that would enable you to interview for employment, work remotely, fill out online-only benefits applications, or do telehealth appointments with doctors located several hours (and a full tank of gas) away. This is the daily reality for millions of Americans, for whom the cost of an internet connection remains prohibitively high. Efforts to expand broadband infrastructure and access through programs such as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program address one important side of the equation. But the other side—equitable broadband adoption—ultimately depends on people having the financial means to get and maintain internet service, which the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) facilitates. The City of Detroit’s success in implementing the ACP, as outlined below, demonstrates how effective the program can be in helping to bridge the digital divide, and provides some lessons for how other cities across the country can increase adoption.

What is the Affordable Connectivity Program?

The ACP is a federal benefit program established through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help people afford internet connectivity by providing a $30 per month ($75 for households on Tribal lands) subsidy for their internet service bill. The ACP is an extension of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which started during the pandemic and sunsetted at the end of 2021. Based on current trends, funding for the ACP could potentially run out by mid-2024, unless Congress acts to reauthorize the program and appropriate funds.

A household is eligible for the ACP if their income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or if a member of the household participates in certain other assistance programs. However, only one-third of eligible households have enrolled in the ACP, and the rate of new enrollments has slowed considerably. This is due to a number of factors. Half of eligible households have never heard of the program, and if they have, there may be a distrust of both government programs with intrusive personal information requests and of promises of “free internet.” For those that are aware of the program and want to take part, there still remains the hurdle of a cumbersome application process that is often not intuitive and can take hours.

Detroit’s Community-Based and Distributed Approach

Enrollment rates for the ACP vary widely by geographic area. Among metropolitan areas, rates can be as low as 21% (such as in Nashville), but Detroit has one of the highest enrollment rates of any metro area, at 59% as of March 2023. What is Detroit doing right? And what lessons can be learned from its success in reaching those in need of help to get or stay connected to broadband?

Detroit’s high ACP enrollment is part of a broader turnaround from their one-time status as the worst connected city in the country. Key to the city’s recent progress is Connect 313, a collaborative partnership formed in 2020 by the City with Rocket Mortgage (based in Detroit), the United Way, and Microsoft to bridge the digital divide in Detroit.

Built on a distributed “snowflake” model of community organizing, Connect 313 acts as the coordinating center of a network of Community Ambassadors, who are trusted local residents with deep reach in the community. Ambassadors work from various community-based organizations, such as the Eastside Community Network and Bridging Communities, to assist residents and address digital equity needs. They also listen to and learn from residents, relaying concerns to Connect 313.

Deeply engaged in their neighborhoods, ambassadors are able to provide local, on-the-ground data to Connect 313 that accurately reflects their communities’ issues and needs. Ambassadors often connect residents with the Neighborhood Tech Hubs spread across the city. Established by Connect 313, the 18 current Tech Hubs cover all of Detroit’s seven council districts. Tech Hubs are hosted at churches, libraries, community centers, and other nonprofit organizations—locations that local residents know and trust. The goal is to “meet people where they’re at,” in the words of Autumn Evans, former Deputy Director for Digital Equity and Inclusion for the City. At Tech Hubs, residents can access computers, get tech help from staff, attend digital literacy workshops, and receive assistance with signing up for the ACP and getting an internet plan. The Digital Literacy Playbook, a digital literacy curriculum provided by Connect 313, includes a list of local internet service providers and guidance on choosing the right broadband plan based on cost, contract terms, and speed.

Advertising campaigns conducted by Connect 313 have also been effective in increasing ACP enrollment. Importantly, these campaigns use inclusive TV and radio ads in multiple languages, targeting communities that have high numbers of eligible applicants, but low enrollment.

Connect 313’s call center has also been instrumental in helping enroll people in ACP, either through working with applicants over the phone, or getting them connected to nearby community ambassadors and Tech Hubs. While the local contacts at trusted community locations ultimately matter most in enrolling applicants, Connect 313 credits their call center—which is able to serve a high volume of people across the Detroit area—as a valuable entry-point into their network.

Improving Enrollment Outreach

To address slowing enrollment rates and reach eligible households that have not yet signed-up for the ACP, the FCC recently allocated $66 million in funds for the Affordable Broadband Outreach Grants Program. As the volume of funding requests exceeded the initial grant allowance, the FCC has announced a second, more targeted, round of funding of up to $10 million. Grantees will need to address three issues: low awareness of the ACP program, overcoming distrust and data privacy concerns, and application bottlenecks. Looking to areas with high ACP enrollment can provide lessons on effective methods of outreach work.

The City of Detroit serves as one of the most successful national models for metropolitan digital inclusion and ACP outreach. To recap, here are the core elements that have enabled Detroit’s success:

  • The highly localized system builds trust with citizens skeptical of promises of cheap internet from new assistance programs that require them to divulge personal information.
  • Community ambassadors tailor outreach to the needs of specific communities.
  • Neighborhood Tech Hubs provide crucial assistance in completing the cumbersome ACP application process.
  • Inclusive ad campaigns in multiple languages that feature people from the communities the city is trying to reach.

Through Detroit’s efforts to help those eligible to receive ACP benefits, nearly 200,000 households in the City are now either connected to broadband for the first time, or are able to keep their connection without the overwhelming concern that they will soon no longer be able to afford it.

The ACP is working—and with more effective enrollment outreach and support, it can help even more people across the country. Continued funding, either through the ACP or other programs like it, would expand access to broadband connectivity for low-income Americans. This funding is not merely a technical investment—it is a critical social and economic investment that brings access to jobs, educational opportunities, improved health, and other essential resources that people need to thrive in our digital economy and society.

Related Topics
Affordability Internet Access & Adoption