In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, equitable access to technology and the internet is more crucial than ever. Ashley Pollard, the Digital Inclusion Manager for the City of Philadelphia, recently discussed the city’s transition from the PHL Connected Program to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) during an interview with “Reality Check” host Tonya Pendleton on WURD Radio.
The Transition from PHL Connected to ACP
The PHL Connected Program was a city-sponsored initiative that offered free internet access to school-aged households during the pandemic, primarily supporting families and students with remote learning. However, the sponsorship for PHL Connected has phased out, so the city needs to inform residents about the transition to the ACP, a federal benefit program aimed at providing internet access to those in need.
The Affordable Connectivity Program is a federal initiative offering eligible individuals a discount of up to $30 per month on their broadband bill. Additionally, households can receive a credit of up to $100 toward purchasing a new device (such as a tablet, desktop, or laptop) if they contribute a minimal amount, sometimes as low as $10 or $11. Various Philadelphia residents qualify for this program, including students in the School District of Philadelphia, families receiving public benefits like Medicaid or SNAP, and those receiving federal Pell Grants.
“This is the first time that the federal government is taking a step to support households with broadband and internet connectivity,” Pollard said. “Although we’re in this transition phase outside of COVID, kids are back in school and we’re mostly back to our day-to-day. The Internet is still a really critical part of our lives now — for telehealth, checking emails, for families to stay in touch with their child’s teacher or check the parent portal…So we want to make sure that Philadelphians have that access and get a benefit that is theirs.”
Accessing the Affordable Connectivity Program
To access the ACP, individuals need to be 18 years or older. Once one person in a household meets the eligibility criteria, the entire household can benefit from the program. Applicants can visit the website “getacp.org/phl” to determine their eligibility and start their application process. Alternatively, they can call 211, a hotline provided in partnership with the United Way, to receive guidance and connect with a digital navigator organization. These community-based organizations offer one-on-one support to assist residents in signing up for internet access and help them find devices and digital skills classes.
Despite advancements in technology, the digital divide still persists in Philadelphia. Many residents rely on mobile phones for internet access, which, while helpful, may not be sufficient for all online activities, including education and job searching. Therefore, the city’s efforts to bridge this divide through programs like the ACP are crucial.
“What we see is that a lot of folks use their mobile phones to connect and get online, which is great, but we want to make sure that folks have household internet as well,” Pollard said. “There are folks that still do not have home internet. My team, along with our partners, really work to try to connect folks to that home broadband solution.
“You really need that large screen desktop or laptop to get those credentials [adult education and GED classes] to work on projects and applications. So the mobile connectivity is great, but we also want to see households connect to that home broadband.”
One of the key outcomes of bridging the digital divide is empowering individuals, regardless of age, to navigate the digital world effectively. Digital inclusion initiatives not only provide access to resources but also offer opportunities for skill development and engagement.
For older adults, digital literacy classes and support from digital navigator organizations can boost their confidence and capabilities, Pollard said. These programs often cover essential skills such as using smartphones, understanding computers, managing emails, and navigating online services. They can also learn about privacy settings and online security, addressing concerns about online safety. This connectivity is especially critical for seniors and those with limited mobility, as it allows them to stay connected with healthcare professionals and family members, promoting their well-being.
With the expansion of online activities, concerns about privacy and data security are valid. Many individuals worry about sharing personal information online and potential vulnerabilities. However, digital literacy and digital navigator programs also address these concerns by educating users about privacy settings, secure online practices, and how to safeguard their information.
But in a world where digital access is increasingly vital for education, healthcare, communication, and more, the Affordable Connectivity Program in Philadelphia is a vital step towards ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age.
“I’ve been at sign-up events for ACP where we’re supporting folks with filling out the application using their phone, figuring out what a password is, how you save it,” Pollard said. “And people feel like they’ve got one additional bit of knowledge that can help them and take them to that next step of feeling like their phone or their device is not so scary.”