As the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations convenes this morning for a hearing on overseeing federal funds for broadband deployment, it bears mention that one of the largest U.S. broadband-subsidy programs is actually likely run out of money within the next year. Writing in Forbes, Roslyn Layton observes of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that it has enrolled more than 14 million households, concluding that it “may be the most effective broadband benefit program to date with its direct to consumer model.”
This may be true, but how should we measure effectiveness? One seemingly simple measure would be the number of households with at-home internet access who would not have it but for the ACP’s subsidies. Those households can be broadly divided into two groups:
- Households that signed up for ACP and got at-home internet; and
- Households that have at-home internet, but wouldn’t if they didn’t receive the ACP subsidies.
Conceptually, evaluating the first group is straightforward. We can survey ACP subscribers and determine whether they had internet access before receiving the ACP subsidies. The second group is much more difficult, if not impossible, to measure with the available information. We can only guess as to how many households would unsubscribe if the subsidies went away.
To give a bit of background on the program we now call the ACP: broadband has been included since 2016 as a supported service under the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program. Among the Lifeline program’s goals are to ensure the availability of broadband for low-income households (to close the so-called “digital divide”) and to minimize the Universal Service Fund contribution burden levied on consumers and businesses.
As part of the appropriations act enacted in 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress created a temporary $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program within the Lifeline program. EBB provided eligible households with a $50 monthly discount on qualifying broadband service or bundled voice-broadband packages purchased from participating providers, as well as a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a device (computer or tablet). The EBB program was originally set to expire when the funds were depleted, or six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared an end to the pandemic.
With passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021, the EBB’s temporary subsidy was extended indefinitely and renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP. The IIJA allocated an additional $14 billion to provide subsidies of $30 a month to eligible households. Without additional appropriations, the ACP is expected to run out of funding by early 2024.
The Case of the Nonadopters
According to Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), 97.6% of the U.S. population has access to a fixed connection of at least 25/3 Mbps through asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), cable, fiber, or fixed wireless. Pew Research reports that 93% of its survey respondents indicated they have a broadband connection at home.
Pew’s results are in-line with U.S. Census estimates from the American Community Survey. The figure below, summarizing information from 2021, shows that 92.6% of households had a broadband subscription or had access without having to pay for a subscription. Assuming ITIF’s estimates of broadband availability are accurate, then among households without broadband, approximately two-thirds of them—6.4 million—have access to broadband.
On the one hand, price is obviously a major factor driving adoption. For example, among the 7.4% of households who do not use the internet at home, Census surveys show about one-third indicate that price is one reason for not having an at-home connection, responding that they “can’t afford it” or that it’s “not worth the cost.” On the other hand, more than half of respondents said they “don’t need it” or are “not interested.”
But George Ford argues that these responses to the Census surveys are unhelpful in evaluating the importance of price relative to other factors. For example, if a consumer says broadband is “not worth the cost,” it’s not clear whether the “worth” is too low or the “cost” is too high. Consumers who are “not interested” in subscribing to an internet service are implicitly saying that they are not interested at current prices. In other words, there may be a price that is sufficiently low that uninterested consumers become interested.
But in some cases, that price may be zero—or even negative.
A 2022 National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) survey of internet use found that about 75% of offline households said they wanted to pay nothing for internet access. In addition, as shown in the figure above, about a quarter of households without a broadband or smartphone subscription claim that they can access the internet at home without paying for a subscription. Thus, there may be a substantial share of nonadopters who would not adopt even if the service were free to the consumer.
Aside from surveys, another way to evaluate the importance of price in internet-adoption decisions is with empirical estimates of demand elasticity. The price elasticity of demand is the percent change in the quantity demanded for a good, divided by the percent change in price. A demand curve with an elasticity between 0 and –1 is said to be inelastic, meaning the change in the quantity demanded is relatively less responsive to changes in price. An elasticity of less than –1 is said to be elastic, meaning the change in the quantity demanded is relatively more responsive to changes in price.
Michael Williams and Wei Zao’s survey of the research on the price elasticity of demand concludes that demand for internet services has traditionally been inelastic and has “become increasingly so over time.” They report a 2019 elasticity of –0.05 (down from –0.69 in 2008). George Ford’s 2021 study estimates an elasticity ranging from –0.58 to –0.33. These results indicate that a subsidy program that reduced the price of internet services by 10% would increase adoption by anywhere from 0.5% (i.e., one-half of one percent) to 5.8%. In other words, a range from approximately zero to a small but significant increase.
It is unsurprising that the demand for internet services is so inelastic, especially among those who do not subscribe to broadband or smartphone service. One reason is the nature of demand curves. Generally speaking, as quantity demanded increases (i.e., moves downward along the demand curve), the demand curve becomes less elastic, as shown in the figure below (which is an illustration of a hypothetical demand curve). With adoption currently at more than 90% of households, the remaining nonadopters are much less likely to adopt at any price.
Thus, there is a possibility that the ACP may be so successful that the program has hit a point of significant diminishing marginal returns. Now that nearly 95% of U.S. households with access to at-home internet use at-home Internet, it may be very difficult and costly to convert the remaining 5% of nonadopters. For example, if Williams & Zao’s estimate of a price elasticity of –0.05 is correct, then even a subsidy that provided “free” Internet would convert only half of the 5% of nonadopters.
Keeping the Country Connected
With all of this in mind, it’s important to recognize that the primary metric for success should not be solely based on adoption rates.
The ACP is not an attempt to create a perfect government program, but rather to address the imperfect realities we face. Some individuals may never adopt internet services, just as some never installed home-telephone services. Even at the peak of landline use in 1998, only 96.2% of households had one.
On the other hand, those who value broadband access may be forced to discontinue service if faced with financial difficulties. Therefore, the program’s objective should encompass both connecting new users and ensuring that economically vulnerable individuals maintain access.
Instead of pursuing an ideal regulatory or subsidy program, we should focus on making the most informed decisions in a context where information is limited. We know there is general demand for internet access and that a significant number of households might discontinue services during economic downturns. And we also know that, in light of these realities, numerous stakeholders advocate for invasive interventions in the broadband market, potentially jeopardizing private investment incentives.
Thus, even if the ACP program is not perfect in itself, it goes a long way toward satisfying the need to make sure the least well-off stay connected, while also allowing private providers to continue their track record of providing high-speed, affordable broadband.
And although we do not have data at the moment demonstrating exactly how many households would discontinue internet service in the absence of subsidies, if Congress does not appropriate additional ACP funds, we may soon have an unfortunate natural experiment that helps us to find out.