Introducing the Affordable Connectivity Program

Friday, January 21, 2022

Digital Beat

Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, building on the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program created earlier in 2021. For the EBB Program, Congress provided the Federal Communications Commission with $3.2 billion to make monthly broadband service bills more affordable for low-income households. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act adds an additional $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program, while leaving in place the EBB Program’s basic framework. But the law also made some changes—to the benefit amount, rules regarding plan and subscriber eligibility, and providers’ public promotion obligations, among other modifications. On January 14, 2022, the FCC adopted rules for the Affordable Connectivity Program—here’s what the new benefit will look like for consumers and providers.

The benefit

Broadband providers will receive up to $30/month (or up to $75/month if the household is on Tribal Land[1] or in a “high-cost” area) for providing service to low-income households. Broadband providers pass on those savings to low-income subscribers. If the provider offers and the consumer picks a plan that regularly costs $30/month or less, the consumer will receive that service for free until Affordable Connectivity Program funding ends. (With more than $14 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program allocated in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and approximately half of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program funding rolled into the new program, the benefit should be available for years to come.) The service can be standalone broadband or a bundle of services including broadband, telephone, texting, and the rental fee on the equipment that makes the service possible (like a modem).

The government will also give a broadband provider up to $100 if a household purchases one of the provider’s connected devices (laptop, desktop, or tablet computer). The consumer can be asked to pay no more than $50 and no less than $10 for the device. A household can only buy one of these discounted devices and there is no discount on smartphones. A connected device must be Wi-Fi enabled and support video conferencing. A device cannot be limited to use with any specific service provider and a provider may not require consumers to obtain an program-supported device in order to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

As in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the FCC sets no minimum service standards for internet service offerings that are eligible for Affordable Connectivity Program support. The FCC says only that the service must include a broadband connection that permits households to rely on these connections for the purposes essential to telework, remote learning, and telehealth.

Who can get the benefit

The program is set up to help people with low incomes. To get the discount, the rules say:

  • A household must meet the qualifications for participation in the Lifeline program;
  • A household’s income must be at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines for a household of that size;
  • At least one person in the household must receive benefits from one of the following federal assistance programs: Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit;
  • At least one person in the household is in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program (including the Community Eligibility Provision);
  • At least one person in the household has received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year;
  • A household must meet the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income program (subject to approval by the FCC); or
  • If a household is located on Tribal lands, it is eligible if at least one person in the household participates in Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance, Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

Anyone who already participates in the FCC’s Lifeline program will not need to apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program or provide any new documents to prove they are eligible. They simply must opt-in to a plan provided by their current broadband company or request enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Similar to the new program, Lifeline lowers the monthly costs of phone and internet services for low-income people, but only by $9.25/month. Currently, most Lifeline participants use the discount on monthly wireless bills. Lifeline subscribers can keep their current benefits and also add a plan, wired or wireless, that is offered by a broadband provider that participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Eligible households can participate in both the Lifeline program and Affordable Connectivity Program for the same or different services.

For households that are already enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, the FCC has adopted three approaches to transitioning them to the Affordability Connectivity Program:

  1. Many legacy EBB Program households will not experience a rate change because their supported Internet service already costs $30 or less a month or because they reside on qualifying Tribal lands and the Tribal benefit level has not changed. These subscribers will not have to opt-in to the Affordability Connectivity Program.
  2. Some legacy EBB Program households are unlikely to face unexpected financial harm as a result of an up to $20 bill increase because they previously demonstrated to their current provider a willingness to pay something for their broadband service. (They may be paying some fee for an EBB-supported internet service, were a provider’s existing paying customer for internet service before enrolling in the EBB Program, or they consented to the provider’s general terms and conditions if they continued to receive their current service after the end of the EBB Program.) The FCC strongly encourages broadband providers to inform these subscribers about the reduced $30 non-Tribal benefit and their ability to opt out or change their service even after the March 1, 2022 end of the transition period. 
  3. Some legacy EBB Program households may experience “bill shock” in March 2022 when the subsidy for their service drops from $50/month to $30/month. For these subscribers, providers may choose between three options: 
  • switch the household to an internet service that costs $30 or less a month after providing advance notice;
  • continue to provide the current level of service without increasing the household’s bill if the provider has internet service options priced at $30 per month or less; or
  • obtain the consumer’s opt-in to continue to receive its current service with the $30 benefit level before the first increased bill after the March 1, 2022 end of the transition period.

People who are not currently in Lifeline must apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program through the National Lifeline Verifier, which is currently required to enroll in the FCC’s Lifeline benefit program. People can apply online or via mail. The consumer needs to provide the following information:

  • Full legal name,
  • Date of birth,
  • Home address, and the
  • Last 4 digits of their Social Security Number, Tribal identification number, a government-issued ID, passport, driver’s license, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number documentation.

People can apply online by going to CheckLifeline.org and creating an account. They may find out if they qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program through the website immediately after applying online. If the National Verifier cannot prove their eligibility automatically, they will need to upload more documents. A broadband provider can help with the application. [Find more information at www.lifelinesupport.org/national-verifier/]

People may also go to ACPBenefit.org to submit an application or print out a mail-in application or contact a participating provider to select a plan and have the discount applied to their bill.

Past problems with broadband bills? People can still get the Affordable Connectivity Program discount if they owe a provider money. And there’s no waiting period to start service after you qualify for the program. You can end service without a termination fee. 

Of note—each year the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers both Lifeline and the Affordable Connectivity Program, will recertify that households remain eligible to participate in both programs. Automated database connections in the National Verifier will be used whenever possible to recertify eligibility.

What consumer protections does the Affordable Connectivity Program offer

In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress both retained certain consumer protections in the EBB Program and guaranteed additional ones for the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Limiting Credit Checks

Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program may not require an eligible household to submit to a credit check in order to apply for the benefit. However, the FCC has decided that the law does not prohibit credit checks entirely.

Providers cannot:

  • Consider the results of a credit check before deciding to enroll a household in the Affordable Connectivity Program,
  • Use credit checks to determine to which Affordable Connectivity Program-supported internet service plan an eligible household can apply their benefit,
  • Use the results of a credit check to decline to transfer a currently enrolled household’s affordable connectivity benefit, or
  • Consider the results of a credit check in order to apply the benefit to an Affordable Connectivity Program-supported service.

But providers can:

  • Run credit checks that are routinely used as part of the provider’s sign-up process for all consumers,
  • Use credit checks in circumstances unrelated to the affordable connectivity benefit,
  • Use the results of a credit check to determine the devices and equipment not supported by the Affordable Connectivity Program that may be offered to the household, and
  • Use credit checks to determine a household’s eligibility to access bundled services—so long as the credit check is used to determine eligibility to receive the service that is not eligible for the affordable connectivity benefit and the household can receive the broadband component of the bundle on a standalone basis regardless of the results of the credit check.

Non-Payment Grace Period

Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program may terminate service to a subscriber after 90 days of nonpayment. Before a provider may disconnect service for non-payment, the provider must provide the household written notice of the possible termination 60 and 30 days prior to the termination date, which must be set from the due date of the bill. The written notice must include the balance due to the provider, the due date for the outstanding balance, the last date of service if the outstanding balance is not paid, instructions for payment, and the provider’s customer service phone number. Notice must also be provided in formats accessible to individuals with disabilities, and may be delivered via email, mail, billing insert or statement, or text message.

With a subscriber’s consent, a provider may transfer a household to a service plan that is fully paid for by the affordable connectivity benefit once the consumer enters a delinquent status after the bill due date to mitigate the non-payment amount.

Handling Consumer Complaints

The FCC is required to create a dedicated process for Affordable Connectivity Program participants to file complaints about the compliance of participating providers with program rules and requirements. To accomplish this, the FCC is adding a dedicated pathway in its existing Consumer Complaint Center to file ACP-related complaints, including notification to providers that the complaint involves the Affordable Connectivity Program, clear direction to consumers on how to correctly file an ACP complaint, and dedicated FCC staff from the Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau to review and process the complaints. Broadband providers must prominently display the FCC’s contact center phone number and the website address for the Consumer Complaint Center on the subscriber’s bill, on the provider’s website, and on all of the provider’s marketing materials. When providers receive complaints about Affordable Connectivity Program-supported services, they must inform subscribers of their right to file a complaint with the FCC. The FCC will regularly issue public reports regarding consumer complaints. 

Restricting Upselling and Downselling

“Upselling” is any business practice that pressures a prospective or existing subscriber to purchase a service plan or bundled plan in addition to or that is more expensive than what the subscriber initially sought. These practices are prohibited by law. So broadband providers may not require a household to select or switch to a higher-cost service plan with their existing provider before the provider will enroll the household in the Affordable Connectivity Program or before the provider will apply the affordable connectivity benefit to the household’s account. Similarly, if a provider offers a particular broadband service either as part of a bundled plan with other services or on a stand-alone basis, the provider may not require an eligible household to purchase the bundled plan or any other services included in the bundle as a mandatory condition in order to select that broadband internet access service plan for purchase or application of the affordable connectivity benefit. Nor may the provider exert pressure on the household to purchase the bundled plan or the other services included in such a plan, rather than the individual broadband internet access service on a stand-alone basis. And even if a particular type of modem, router, or other associated equipment is technically necessary in order to use a specific type of broadband internet access service, a participating provider may not compel or pressure an eligible household to purchase or rent such equipment from the provider in conjunction with selecting (or applying the benefit to) that type of service if the needed equipment is also available from other vendors and the household could opt to obtain it from someone other than the provider. 

Of note, just communicating information regarding higher-speed or higher-priced service tiers is not in itself prohibited upselling in the absence of further evidence. To ensure that consumers are sufficiently informed of the available options, the FCC requires providers to inform prospective and current subscribers seeking to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program or seeking to change service plans of all ACP-supported plans available in the household’s service area that are fully covered by the affordable connectivity benefit.

Inappropriate downselling is any business practice that pressures a subscriber to lower the quality of broadband service (such as reducing bandwidth or speed, or adding or lowering data caps that would not meet the participating household’s needs) to the benefit of the provider rather than the consumer. Inappropriate downselling is also prohibited by law, but the FCC is not prohibiting all downselling. So merely suggesting or mentioning the availability of a lower-price service plan(s) that would satisfy consumers’ broadband needs is permitted. The FCC does prohibit a provider from requiring a prospective or current household to change to a lower-cost service plan or to choose from a set of specific low-cost service plans before permitting the household to enroll in the program or before applying the affordable connectivity benefit to the household’s account. Inappropriate downselling also includes business practices that aim to benefit the provider (such as minimizing the provider’s out-of-pocket expenses) with no actual benefit to the consumer. For example, a practice of suggesting only low-quality service plans with a low data cap or low speed simply to benefit the provider and without regard to consumer need would be an example of prohibited inappropriate downselling. 

Extended Service Contracts

An extended service contract is typically an offer of service at a discount price in exchange for a commitment from the subscriber to remain on that service plan for a set period of time, usually at least a year. Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program may offer eligible households plans with an extended service contract, but providers must not require a household to agree to an extended service contract as a condition of enrolling in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Where a household elects an extended service contract, the FCC requires the provider to notify the household that it may change its service at any time without incurring an early termination fee, as such fees are prohibited by law. In addition, providers must disclose all material terms to Affordable Connectivity Program households prior to enrollment, including but not limited to the price of service and the conditions for breach.

Switching Service Offerings

Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program may not impose restrictions on eligible households seeking to switch internet service offerings.

Switching Service Providers

The FCC prohibits any practice that is reasonably likely to cause a household to believe that they are prohibited or restricted from transferring their benefit to a different provider. These practices include: misrepresenting or failing to accurately disclose to a household the rules and requirements regarding transfers in the Affordable Connectivity Program; charging a fee to the household for transferring their benefit to another provider; and suggesting that the provider may change the consumer’s service plan if they transfer their benefit to another provider.

Unjust and Unreasonable Practices

Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program are prohibited from using unjust and unreasonable practices that undermine the purpose, intent, or integrity of the Affordable Connectivity Program. Providers must enroll an eligible household within five business days from the date the provider receives the household’s affirmative consent to enroll with that provider for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Providers are required to apply the affordable connectivity benefit to the household’s account. Broadband providers are prohibited from advertising or holding themselves out as participating providers if they are not in fact permitted to participate in the program. Providers are prohibited from engaging in false or misleading advertising of the Affordable Connectivity Program. Failure to timely provide service, equipment, or devices that are advertised, promoted, or marketed is an unjust and unreasonable practice and is a violation of the Affordable Connectivity Program rules. Providers must deliver any connected devices under the program within 30 days of affirmative consent to receive the device from the household.

Disclosures

Service provider disclosures and consumer consents are important measures for ensuring consumers are fully informed of their rights and consent to a transaction. 

Prior to enrolling an eligible consumer in the National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD), broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program must disclose to consumers, orally or in writing, the following information in clear, easily understood terms that:

  1. the Affordable Connectivity Program is a government program that reduces the customer’s broadband internet access service bill;
  2. the household may obtain ACP-supported broadband service from any participating provider of its choosing;
  3. the household may apply the ACP benefit to any broadband service offering of the participating provider at the same terms available to households that are not eligible for ACP-supported service;
  4. the provider may disconnect the household’s ACP-supported service after 90 consecutive days of non-payment;
  5. the household will be subject to the provider’s undiscounted rates and general terms and conditions if the program ends, if the consumer transfers their benefit to another provider but continues to receive service from the current provider, or upon de-enrollment from the Affordable Connectivity Program; and
  6. the household may file a complaint against its provider via the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center.

If the provider offers a connected device through the Affordable Connectivity Program, the disclosures must also include language stating that the household does not need to accept the device in order to enroll in the program. Providers must also inform consumers about the provider’s supported service plans that are fully covered by the applicable affordable connectivity benefit amount to guard against inappropriate upselling.

Consumer Consent

Before enrolling a consumer in the Affordable Connectivity Program, participating providers must obtain affirmative consumer consent either orally or in writing that acknowledges that after having reviewed the required disclosures (see above) about the Affordable Connectivity Program, the household consents to enroll with the provider.

Participating providers may not link enrollment to some other action or information supplied to the provider for purposes other than the Affordable Connectivity Program. As examples, providers are prohibited from: (1) not clearly distinguishing the process of signing up for supported services and devices from the process of signing up for, renewing, upgrading, or modifying other services, including Lifeline-supported services; (2) suggesting or implying that signing up for supported services and devices is required for obtaining or continuing other services, including Lifeline-supported services; and (3) tying the submission of customer information provided for another purpose (e.g., address verification or equipment upgrade or replacement) to enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Who can provide service

Just about any broadband internet access service provider may offer Affordable Connectivity Program-supported services including telephone companies, cable operators, wireless carriers, community-owned networks, electric cooperatives, and municipal governments. Provider participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program is voluntary.

The FCC will continue to utilize the participating provider election and approval processes used in the EBB Program.

If a broadband provider already participates in a federal assistance program, like Lifeline, it just needs to tell the FCC that it also wants to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. If a broadband provider already participates in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, it is automatically eligible to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Other providers can still participate, but they have to apply to do so, establishing that they offered broadband services to end-users prior to seeking to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

For providers that already offer their own discount programs for low-income households, their application will be approved automatically. They just need to tell the FCC (1) the states or territories in which they plan to participate, (2) the service areas in which they have the authority, if needed, to operate in each state, and (3) a description, supported by documentation, of the established program with which the provider seeks to qualify for automatic admission to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

A broadband provider that does not have its own low-income discount program or has not previously participated in government programs like Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit must file an application that includes (1) the state(s) in which it plans to participate, (2) the service areas in which the provider has the authority, if needed, to operate in each state, and (3) the provider’s plan to combat waste, fraud, and abuse.

What providers need to do

Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program must notify—in writing or orally, in customers’ preferred language, and in a manner that is accessible to individuals with disabilities—all consumers who either subscribe to or renew a subscription to an internet service offering about the Affordable Connectivity Program and how to enroll:

  1. during enrollment for new subscribers.
  2. at least 30 days before the date of renewal for subscribers not enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program who have fixed-term plans longer than one month, and
  3. annually for subscribers not already enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program who have month-to-month or similar non-fixed term plans. 

The notice must indicate—using clear, easily understood language:

  1. the eligibility requirements for consumer participation;
  2. that the Affordable Connectivity Program is non-transferrable and limited to one monthly internet discount and a one-time connected device discount (only if the provider offers ACP discounted devices) per household;
  3. how to enroll, such as a customer service phone number or relevant website information; and
  4. that the Affordable Connectivity Program is a federal government benefit program operated by the Federal Communications Commission and, if it ends, or when a household is no longer eligible, customers will be subject to the provider’s regular rates, terms, and conditions.

Participating providers must publicize the availability of the Affordable Connectivity Program in a manner reasonably designed to reach those consumers likely to qualify and in a manner that is accessible to individuals with disabilities. To comply with these requirements, service providers should utilize outreach materials and methods designed to reach eligible households that do not currently receive broadband internet access service. Service provider materials describing the Affordable Connectivity Program must include points 1-4 above. Providers should develop advertising materials describing the service in the dominant languages of communities they serve through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Providers must clearly display on their websites the monetary charges for their current Affordable Connectivity Program service offerings and the available upload/download speeds and data caps for those offerings. 

Participating service providers must carry out public awareness campaigns in their Affordable Connectivity Program areas of service that highlight the value and benefits of broadband internet access service and the existence of the Affordable Connectivity Program in collaboration with state agencies, public interest groups, and non-profit organizations. 

By law, participating service providers must offer the Affordable Connectivity Program discount on all of their internet service offerings.

Participating service providers must enroll all consumers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program in the National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD).

To verify that a household qualifies to participate, the broadband provider must:

  • Check the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier, an electronic system in place to determine consumer eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program and now the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, too;
  • Have its own FCC-approved verification process; or
  • Check with a school to confirm that a student participates in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program (including the Community Eligibility Provision).

In cases where a broadband provider does not assess or collect a monthly fee from an Affordable Connectivity Program subscriber for a supported service, the subscriber must use their service at least once every 30 days. The provider is required to track usage. After 30 consecutive days of non-usage, the provider must notify the consumer that they will be de-enrolled if they do not use the service in 15 days. Providers are prohibited from claiming support for a subscriber who has not used their service in the last consecutive 30 days.

More information for broadband providers is available from the Universal Service Administrative Co. at www.usac.org/about/affordable-connectivity-program/participate-in-acp/

What’s next?

Meeting Congressional mandates, the FCC officially launched the Affordable Connectivity Program on December 31, 2021 and adopted the formal rules to govern the new program on January 14, 2022. But there is still much to do to ensure the program delivers affordable broadband service to low-income households. In What’s Next for the Affordable Connectivity Program? we look at what is on the FCC’s agenda in the coming months. 

Notes:

  1. Tribal lands include “any federally recognized Indian tribe’s reservation, pueblo, or colony, including former reservations in Oklahoma; Alaska Native regions established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688); Indian allotments; Hawaiian Home Lands – areas held in trust for Native Hawaiians by the state of Hawaii; and any land designated as such by the FCC.

 

Kevin Taglang is Executive Editor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

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