Friday, January 21, 2022
In an earlier article, we introduced the new Affordable Connectivity Program, created by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But the Federal Communications Commission still has lots of work to do to ensure the program delivers affordable broadband to low-income households. Here’s what remains on the FCC agenda.
As Congress found in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States. The aim of the Affordable Connectivity Program is to ensure broadband is affordable for any household no matter its income. Although the Federal Communications Commission has met an incredibly tight timeline to adopt rules and launch the new Affordable Connectivity Program, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Here’s a quick look at what remains on the FCC’s agenda.
Of note, this agenda mainly falls to various bureaus and offices within the FCC including the Wireline Competition Bureau, the Office of Managing Director, and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Because of its extensive experience administering both Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Programs, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the independent not-for-profit designated by the FCC to administer Universal Service Fund programs, will serve as the administrator of the Affordable Connectivity Program. The ACP relies on the use of USAC-administered systems—including but not limited to, the National Verifier, National Lifeline Accountability Database, Representative Accountability Database, and the Lifeline Claims System—for the provider reimbursement process, call centers for program support, provider and consumer outreach, and conducting program integrity reviews. The Wireline Competition Bureau and the Office of Managing Director will supervise and coordinate with USAC on all actions necessary to continue to make available USAC databases and systems. The Wireline Competition Bureau, working with USAC, will issue any further guidance or instruction necessary to clarify the obligations of participating providers when using USAC databases and the administrative process established for the Affordable Connectivity Program.
In addition, the FCC delegates authority to its Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Managing Director to make necessary adjustments to the program administration and to provide additional detail and specificity to the requirements of the Affordable Connectivity Program to conform with the intent of the FCC’s rules and ensure the efficient functioning of the program. The Office of Managing Director is responsible for financial oversight of the Affordable Connectivity Program and must consult with the Wireline Competition Bureau on any policy matters affecting the program
I. The Transition from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to the Affordable Connectivity Program
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides for a 60-day transition period, during which time Emergency Broadband Benefit Program subscribers who were enrolled prior to December 31, 2021 and would otherwise see a reduction in their benefit under the Affordable Connectivity Program will continue to receive a benefit of $50/month. This transition period ends on March 1, 2022. The FCC wants to prevent bill shock and other adverse experiences like a downgraded service offering. Instead of a uniform opt-in approach for all legacy EBB households that transition to the Affordable Connectivity Program, the FCC is adopting a hybrid approach based on the circumstances of subscribers:
- Some 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 do not have to opt-in to continue to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program after the end of the transition period
- 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 and ability to pay something for their broadband service, such as by paying some fee for an EBB-supported internet service, being the provider’s existing paying customer for internet service before enrolling in the EBB Program, or consenting to the provider’s general terms and conditions if they continued to receive their current service after the end of the EBB Program.
- For these subscribers, the ability to opt out of the Affordable Connectivity Program or change their service is sufficient because there is little risk that any increased costs for these subscribers are unexpected, and any increased costs these subscribers incur would be smaller than the potential costs these subscribers would incur if they failed to timely opt in. The FCC strongly encourages service providers to continue to inform legacy EBB households 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
- Households who have not previously demonstrated a willingness to pay for continued internet service may be a stronger risk of potential bill shock from an up to $20 bill increase as a result of a reduced benefit amount.
- For these subscribers, broadband providers have multiple transition options: (1) switch the household to an internet service that costs $30 or less a month after providing advance notice in advance of this change; (2) 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 (3) 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.
For all legacy EBB households, the FCC encourages broadband providers to continue to disseminate information including: (1) a reminder that the non-Tribal ACP benefit is $30 per month; (2) a reminder that the household has the right to cancel or change its service, or switch providers without incurring an early termination fee; and (3) a reminder that the household has the right to opt out of the Affordable Connectivity Program at any time. If a service provider is already offering or intends to offer an Affordable Connectivity Program service that would eliminate or lessen the rate increase, it would also be useful for service providers to include that information. To maximize the potential consumer outreach on these issues, the FCC also strongly encourages participating providers to post this information on their websites in a location that is highly visible.
II. Program Goals and Performance Measures
A primary goal of the Affordability Connectivity Program should be to close the digital divide by reducing the broadband affordability gap. The Wireline Competition Bureau and the Office of Economics and Analytics, with support from USAC, will collect as necessary appropriate data and develop metrics to determine progress towards this goal, such as broadband adoption by first-time subscribers, and increasing enrollments in areas with low broadband internet penetration rates.
The second goal is to increase awareness of and participation in the Affordability Connectivity Program. The FCC will invest in direct, data-driven outreach to unconnected households to increase program awareness. To measure progress towards this goal, the FCC will monitor the participation over time and by area as USAC continues to publish enrollment data by geographic regions. The Wireline Competition Bureau and the Office of Economics and Analytics, with support from USAC, will collect the appropriate data as necessary, including possibly a survey that measures the general public’s awareness of the Affordability Connectivity Program.
The FCC’s third goal is efficient and effective administration of the Affordability Connectivity Program. The commission will measure success towards this goal by evaluating the speed and ease of the application process and the reimbursement process, and the overall burden of the program on consumers. To measure the first performance metric, the FCC will conduct consumer and provider outreach that will aim to capture program satisfaction. In addition, the commission will seek feedback from state, community, and non-profit partners helping to educate consumers on the application process. To measure the second performance measure, the FCC will follow the 2012 Lifeline Report and Order’s proposed measure of consumer burden, which divides the total inflation-adjusted expenditures of the low-income program each year by the number of households in the United States and express the measure as a monthly dollar figure. This calculation will rely on publicly available data and will therefore be transparent and easily verifiable.
As in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, USAC will develop, with Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics oversight, a tracker that reports on disbursements and program enrollment to allow providers and the public to monitor the balance of available funds. In the tracker, USAC should include enrollment data including, enrollee age category, eligibility category, type of broadband service, and enrollment numbers by five-digit ZIP code areas. USAC will update the posted information regularly.
The Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics, with support from USAC, will determine appropriate avenues to collect service plan characteristics, such as possible future modifications to the National Lifeline Accountability Database or conducting a provider survey, and the specific information that service providers must submit. In making its determination, the Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics will balance the value of the information collected against the burden to service providers. The Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics must limit their efforts to those necessary to carry out the purposes of the Affordable Connectivity Program. Additionally, consumers would benefit from knowing which providers offer plans fully covered by the household discount and the availability of such plans in their area. Thus, USAC will make available, where possible, information about the availability of plans fully covered by the household discount. In doing so, USAC should consider planned information collections as well as other avenues for collecting this information while minimizing burden to providers.
III. The Importance of Outreach to Low-Income Consumers
Obviously, low-income people need to know about the Affordable Connectivity Program in order for them to seek to enroll in it. Congress recognized this in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, explicitly allowing the FCC to conduct various outreach efforts to encourage households to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Congress allows the FCC to facilitate consumer research, conduct focus groups, engage in paid media campaigns, and provide grants to outreach partners. The FCC estimates that it will need $100 million over the next five years to undertake the outreach efforts envisioned by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The Wireline Competition Bureau, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, the FCC’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities, Office of the Managing Director, and the FCC’s Office of Media Relations will collaborate on identifying and conducting the FCC’s paid outreach efforts to promote program awareness and encourage households to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program, using the broad range of outreach tools permitted under the law. These efforts may include both national and more targeted activities, with particular emphasis on reaching people of color, persons with disabilities, persons who live in rural or Tribal areas, and others who are or have been historically unserved, marginalized, or adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality. In carrying out this outreach, FCC staff will also focus on helping households that are unconnected due to affordability issues and are not currently enrolled in a low-income connectivity program with awareness and enrollment in the program.
As permitted under the Infrastructure Act, FCC staff may work with USAC and third-party entities to conduct consumer research and focus groups. Consumer research and focus groups may provide meaningful insights into program messaging, including translations, application and enrollment process improvements, program awareness, perceived program value, and other topics that may improve awareness of the program and barriers to participation that could be addressed through outreach, and help drive enrollment.
The Wireline Competition Bureau, in consultation with the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau and Office of Media Relations and with support from the Office of the Managing Director as needed, may also pursue a paid media strategy for the Affordable Connectivity Program. In addition to traditional media and online ads, a paid media strategy may also include paid media in diverse outlets that serve culturally and linguistically isolated communities for which a significant population may qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Such a media strategy may include a mix of national, regional, and hyper-local campaigns designed to reach the intended populations. The Wireline Competition Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, with support from the Office of the Managing Director as needed, may rely on a third-party media strategy firm to develop a media plan and facilitate paid advertising campaigns.
FCC staff and USAC will develop comprehensive provider education and training programs, as well as consumer outreach plans. USAC will develop and implement—under the oversight of the Wireline Competition Bureau, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, and the Office of Communications Business Opportunities—training and provide information necessary to successfully participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. USAC will both educate service providers on the Affordable Connectivity Program and engage in consumer outreach to complement the efforts FCC staff will undertake. The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, including the Office of Native Affairs and Policy, and the Office of Communications Business Opportunities will coordinate with USAC to develop educational and informational communications and materials to advertise the Affordable Connectivity Program, such as a webpage and digital toolkit in a printable format and translated into other languages that can easily be accessed by service providers, organizations, and the public.
The FCC encourages participating broadband providers to support the outreach efforts of local organizations that are helping households to become aware of and enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program or understand the available service offerings from different providers.
State entities and Tribal partners can request access to the National Verifier to assist applicants who are physically present with completing and submitting an application for the Lifeline program. The Wireline Competition Bureau, in coordination with USAC, will conduct a one-year test pilot for granting trusted third-party entities (such as schools and school districts, or other local or state government entities) access to the National Verifier for purposes of assisting customers with applying for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Consistent with current practice in the Lifeline program, those that are granted access to the National Verifier in this pilot will be required to register in the RAD. Government entities participating in this pilot, for example schools, may seek to partner with neutral non-profit organizations for purposes of raising awareness about the Affordable Connectivity Program and increasing the enrollment of eligible households. Pilot participants may enter into partnerships with neutral non-profit organizations provided that the government entity informs the Wireline Competition Bureau that it is partnering with a specific non-profit organization, access to the National Verifier through the pilot is limited to actual representatives of the participating government entity, and enrollment activities through the National Verifier take place in the government entity’s facility or other location maintained or operated by the government entity. Entities participating in this pilot (and their neutral non-profit partners as applicable) must maintain neutrality with respect to Affordable Connectivity Program participating providers when assisting consumers in connection with this pilot. The Wireline Competition Bureau shall determine the scope of this pilot, and the process for identifying potential participants. The bureau may issue public notices or engage with stakeholders as needed to obtain information necessary to establish this pilot, and may make any necessary changes to the National Verifier. Consistent with the current enrollment processes, the bureau shall make sure that appropriate safeguards are in place for the pilot to protect applicant’s personally identifiable information. At the completion of the pilot, the bureau will send a report to the FCC summarizing the results of the pilot.
More Public Comment Sought on Creating an Outreach Grant Program
In the same order which established the new rules for the Affordable Connectivity Program, the FCC also sought comment on structuring an outreach grant program and implementing a mechanism for determining the application of the enhanced benefit for those serving high-cost areas. In a further notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC recognizes there is strong support for the creation of a grant program to promote awareness of and enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program but seeks additional public input on the structure and implementation of such a program. The FCC seeks examples of other federal outreach grant programs on which it could model its program. The FCC particularly wants to hear from parties who have experience serving people of color, persons with disabilities, persons who live in rural or Tribal areas, and others who are or have been historically underserved, marginalized, or adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality, including state, local and Tribal governments, non-profits, and community-based organizations, to identify federal grant programs that they have found to be helpful in those efforts.
The FCC seeks comment on the duration and budget for a potential outreach grant funding program. The FCC proposes a multi-year program since the Affordable Connectivity Program is funded for some years to come. Given that, should grantees submit a new application periodically? Taking into consideration the range of costs that may be associated with outreach efforts, what should be the estimated ranges of outreach grant awards? What should the budget for the outreach program be? How much funding might grantees need in order to execute effective outreach efforts?
Who should be eligible to participate in the outreach grant funding program? If non-profit organizations are eligible for funds, should eligibility be limited to non-profit organizations with 501(c)(3) status? Should state, local, and Tribal governments—including associated social service agencies, school districts, libraries, , public housing authorities, governmental entities located within the state that carry out workforce development programs, or an agency of the State that is responsible for administering or supervising adult education and literacy activities in the state—be eligible to receive potential grant funds? Are there other types of organizations that should be considered eligible for a potential outreach grant program? How could awarding funding to applicants from a range of organization types and sizes (e.g., nationwide, regional, local, and smaller organizations) and ensuring diversity in geographic areas and intended outreach populations best serve the underlying goal of increasing enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program?
Should the application and selection process for a potential outreach grant program be competitive? How should the FCC structure an application and evaluation process to maximize the potential reach and effectiveness of outreach grant funding?
Grantees would be required to adhere to applicable federal grantee regulations, including but not limited to “tak[ing] all necessary affirmative steps to assure that minority businesses, women’s business enterprises, and labor surplus area firms are used when possible.” Should use of outreach grant funds be limited to the named grant recipient, or should funding recipients be permitted to use subgrantees? Would allowing subgrantees significantly complicate the administration of an outreach grant program?
The FCC has a strong interest in selecting grant applications that would target underserved populations and areas where the funding will have the most impact on increasing awareness of and, consequently, enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Should special consideration be given to prior experience working with or conducting
outreach to such communities? What types of information should be sought from applicants in order to allow the FCC to make informed decisions about the merits of the applications, including the reach of applicant organizations and the populations that they target? What metrics should the FCC take into account when considering applicants and selecting grantees?
The FCC seeks comment on establishing goals and metrics for a potential outreach grant program, and tracking performance of those goals. Increasing enrollments in the Affordable Connectivity Program is one potential goal of an outreach grant program. What metrics could track performance towards this goal? What other measurable goals and metrics would be appropriate for a potential outreach funding program? What factors could the FCC require grantees to track to help measure the real impact of supported outreach activities? What would be an appropriate performance period (e.g., one year, three years) and reporting period(s) (e.g., annually, semi-annually)?
The FCC is interested in collecting service plan characteristics—such as upload and download speeds, data allowances, and co-payment—associated with subscribers’ service plans to gauge whether the Affordable Connectivity Program is providing value to households beyond what the Lifeline program offers, and whether that value is in-line with market rates for broadband services. The Wireline Competition Bureau and the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics, with support from USAC, will determine whether data should be collected and the appropriate avenues to collect this data, such as possible future modifications to National Lifeline Accountability Database or conducting a provider survey. If such data is collected, it could be compared to program-specific consumer complaint data to determine whether there is a need to establish adequate metrics for quality of service received under the Affordable Connectivity Program.
IV. Collaboration with Federal Agencies
The FCC must collaborate with relevant Federal agencies to ensure that households that participate in qualifying programs for the Affordable Connectivity Program are provided with information about the Affordable Connectivity Program, including enrollment information.
The Wireline Competition Bureau, in conjunction with the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, will collaborate on efforts designed to ensure that households participating in the relevant qualifying programs are provided with information on the Affordable Connectivity Program, including enrollment information. The bureaus will identify and engage in specific activities that would best satisfy this collaboration requirement. These activities may include, but are not limited to, developing co-branded awareness campaign materials and coordinating with other federal agencies on email communications about the Affordable Connectivity Program to households participating in qualifying benefit programs.
Although the FCC finds it does not have the authority to compel other Federal agencies to update their Systems of Records Notices, the commission is permitted to collaborate with other agencies. So the Wireline Competition Bureau, the FCC’s Office of General Counsel, and the Office of the Managing Director will collaborate with relevant Federal agencies to ensure that households participating in relevant qualifying programs are provided information about the Affordable Connectivity Program, which will include encouraging other federal agencies to update their System of Records Notices to permit information sharing related to the Affordable Connectivity Program.
To facilitate increased opportunity for automatic eligibility verification, USAC and the FCC have executed computer matching agreements with state and federal partners for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that allow USAC to continue to utilize those connections for the Affordable Connectivity Program. USAC will continue to engage with state and federal agencies with which there is no existing computer matching agreement for the Affordable Connectivity Program. USAC will pursue establishing connections with eligibility databases for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a new eligibility program under the Affordable Connectivity Program. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also requires the Secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with USAC to share National Verifier data.
USAC will enable database connections through computer matching agreements with the respective government entities for the qualifying programs for the Affordable Connectivity Program (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, and Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit). Where not possible, eligible households are allowed to submit documentation so that USAC can manually process the eligibility information for inclusion in the National Verifier. The Wireline Competition Bureau will direct USAC in these efforts and provide any additional interpretations of the relevant statutory language for using the National Verifier for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Unless and until such database connections have been enabled, USAC will verify program eligibility based on manual documentation review.
Pilot Program Focused on Eligible Households Participating in Federal Public Housing Assistance Programs
The FCC realizes that to help ensure that the Affordable Connectivity Program reaches the lowest income Americans, it needs to take additional steps and innovative approaches. To that end, the FCC is seeking comment on a proposal to launch a pilot program focused on expanding Affordable Connectivity Program participation by Federal Public Housing Assistance beneficiaries, including increasing awareness and assisting with navigating the enrollment process. The FCC is exploring innovative ways to partner with the Department Housing and Urban Development, city and state housing authorities that administer Federal Public Housing Assistance programs [such as the housing choice voucher program (Section 8), project-based rental assistance, and public housing] on Affordable Connectivity Program outreach and enrollment.
The FCC seeks help in identifying the specific partner agencies for these efforts. In particular, it seeks comment on the types of collaborative cross-agency outreach that would be most effective at reaching this population. Are there examples of cross-agency marketing and outreach efforts that the FCC should look to as models for these efforts? Are there other models the FCC should look to in designing and implementing these cross-agency efforts? Are there data sources that the FCC should consider to identify specific locations where the cross-agency outreach and marketing efforts are most likely to have a significant impact?
The FCC seeks comment on ways to make outreach through these partnerships as effective as possible. Are there proven methods for communicating well with Federal Public Housing Assistance beneficiaries? How can the FCC identify and develop specific outreach and marketing efforts to be conducted through this pilot? What should the scope and duration of these efforts be? The FCC also seeks comment on whether and how it can partner with third parties, including non-profit organizations, to help identify, develop, and carry out these marketing and outreach efforts. Should the FCC use Affordable Connectivity Program funding designated for outreach for these marketing and outreach efforts?
Of course, awareness of Affordable Connectivity Program alone may not be enough to significantly increase participation. How can the FCC best assist Federal Public Housing Assistance households in accessing or navigating the application for the Affordable Connectivity Program? Should a partner agency establish an assistance location on site where eligible household members can complete and submit an application for the Affordable Connectivity Program? Should the FCC consider directing USAC to provide access to the National Verifier to these agencies to assist applicants who are physically present with completing and submitting an application for the Affordable Connectivity Program? Are there other models for providing enrollment assistance the FCC should consider?
How can the FCC measure success of the pilot?
V. The Affordable Connectivity Program in High-Cost Areas
Congress provides for a separate enhanced benefit for low-income households that are served by providers in “high-cost areas.” The National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with the FCC, will determine what areas are high-cost. NTIA and the FCC will consider the remote location of the area, population density, unique topography, high rate of poverty in the area, and other factors to determine if the cost of building out broadband service in the area is higher when compared with the average cost of building out broadband service in unserved areas in the United States.
In these high-cost areas, broadband providers will receive up to $75/month for providing service to eligible, low-income households upon showing that the Affordable Connectivity Program’s normal $30/month rate would cause “particularized economic hardship to the provider such that the provider may not be able to maintain the operation of part or all of its broadband network.”
The FCC seeks public comment on implementing these high-cost area provisions, asking:
Do the areas in question have to be unserved now or can they be all high-cost areas generally, whether served or unserved by an existing broadband provider? How can providers demonstrate “particularized economic hardship?” Should providers have to demonstrate that the expected revenue from a substantial number of eligible households does not cover the cost of serving the designated high-cost area even when high-cost Universal Service Fund support is taken into consideration? What would be a “substantial number” of eligible households? When a provider has a depressed take-rate, how can the FCC determine the cause is because households in that area cannot afford internet? How can the FCC assess the financial needs of providers who need to maintain the operation of the network serving households in the designated high-cost areas? What information (such as revenues, cost models, capital expenditures, etc.) should a provider be required to submit to show that increased subsidies from the Affordable Connectivity Program are necessary for the provider to maintain their network? Is there a level of poverty that could be applied in all high-cost areas to determine where carriers face particularized economic hardship? What information is publicly available for the FCC to consider in making such a determination? Should the FCC take into consideration other subsidies and financial benefits used by providers in determining a provider’s request for high-cost treatment in the Affordable Connectivity Program?
VI. Broadband Providers and the Affordable Connectivity Program
A. Provider Participation
The Wireline Competition Bureau will oversee USAC’s administration of the process by which providers indicate they want to participate in the program and are approved to do so. The Wireline Competition Bureau and USAC are instructed to work expeditiously to review provider applications and elections, respectively, and the bureau will issue additional guidance and instruction as necessary for providers seeking to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Further, the bureau and USAC will prioritize their reviews to limit excessive delay in issuing approvals of the applications and elections once properly submitted by the providers.
B. Subscriber Enrollment
The FCC finds that a disclosure requirement prior to enrolling consumers in the Affordable Connectivity Program is necessary to ensure that eligible consumers are fully informed of their rights and the terms and conditions for their service. Accordingly, the Wireline Competition Bureau, in coordination with FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, will adopt a standard disclosure statement that all providers will be required to use. They will also adopt a standard consent statement that providers will also be required to use in conjunction with the disclosures before enrolling eligible consumers in the Affordable Connectivity Program
Participating service providers must enroll all consumers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program in the National Lifeline Accountability Database. USAC must make changes to the database that are necessary to implement the new rules and requirements and to give participating service providers advance notice of any system changes for the Affordable Connectivity Program so they can make corresponding changes to their system. The Wireline Competition Bureau will require other changes that may be necessary for the administration and integrity of the Affordable Connectivity Program.
The Wireline Competition Bureau in conjunction with USAC has already developed approval criteria for acceptable identity documentation, which include a government-issued ID (such as a state ID), passport, U.S. driver’s license, U.S. military ID, or Individual Tax Payer Identification documentation. The bureau will coordinate with USAC to make changes to the identity documentation requirements as necessary to administer the program promote program integrity, and explore whether other systems or databases could be used to verify the identity of consumers who provide alternative documentation instead of the last four digits of their social security number.
USAC will enable the National Lifeline Accountability Database to allow subscribers to have separate identifiers for the Lifeline Program and the Affordable Connectivity Program, which can be associated with the corresponding Lifeline provider or Affordable Connectivity Program provider, as applicable.
USAC will explore ways to improve on the process for identifying and notifying service providers about potentially deceased subscribers—and conduct program integrity reviews to ensure compliance with the FCC ban on enrolling or claiming program support if USAC cannot verify a subscriber’s status as alive.
USAC will data available publicly on the number of households enrolled through each eligibility threshold, including through provider’s existing low-income program, similar to the tracker used with households enrolled through the National Verifier.
C. Alternative Verification Processes
Broadband providers may opt to use their own process to verify that consumers are eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Participating providers seeking to use alternative verification processes must collect a prospective subscriber’s:
- full name,
- phone number,
- date of birth,
- e-mail address,
- home and mailing addresses,
- name and date of birth of the benefit qualifying person if different than applicant,
- basis for inclusion in program (e.g., SNAP, SSI, Medicaid, school lunch, Pell Grant, income, provider’s existing program, etc.) and documentation supporting verification of eligibility, and
- certifications from the household that the information included in the application is true.
The provider is required to describe the processes it (or a third-party) uses to verify the required information and is required to explain why the alternative process would be sufficient to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse. The provider is also required to explain how it trains its employees and agents to prevent ineligible enrollments, including enrollments based on fabricated documents. If the alternative verification process fails to include any of the required information, the provider is required to explain why such information was not necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Finally, a provider must describe why its established program requires approval of an alternative verification process and it is required to explain why it proposes to use an alternative verification process instead of the National Verifier eligibility determinations.
The Wireline Competition Bureau administers the application review process and issues decisions regarding the application or otherwise notifies the provider of why the application is insufficient within seven business days of the receipt of the application. If the provider’s application is incomplete, the seven-business-day timing will not begin until the applicant provides additional information requested from the bureau.
D. Annual Eligibility Certifications
Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program must submit to USAC annual officer certifications relating to the Affordable Connectivity Program. At a minimum, these annual certifications will require providers to attest that they:
- have policies and procedures to ensure the eligibility of their subscribers to receive Affordable Connectivity Program support and for ensuring the accuracy and completeness of the information they provide to the National Verifier and National Lifeline Accountability Database;
- an acknowledgment that providers are liable for violations of program rules and that their liability extends to violations by their agents, contractors, and representatives; and
- other information deemed necessary by the Wireline Competition Bureau to ensure that providers have a plan for complying with program rules.
The Wireline Competition Bureau will develop an annual officer certification and submission process with USAC and set a uniform deadline for all providers to submit this annual certification.
USAC must make all necessary changes to the relevant program systems—including National Verifier, National Lifeline Accountability Database, and Lifeline Claims System—and acceptable program documentation criteria to implement the new criteria for the Affordable Connectivity Program consistent with the new rules and requirements.
USAC will develop mechanisms and processes to allow subscribers who are enrolled in both Lifeline and the Affordable Connectivity Program to rely on a successful recertification across the two programs, where the qualifying criterion is in alignment across the two programs. USAC will identify and implement ways to coordinate consumer recertification outreach for the two programs to minimize consumer response burdens and reduce the potential for consumer confusion. USAC will conduct recertifications for program subscribers whose eligibility was verified through the National Verifier processes. USAC will make available an online form, paper form, and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) option for recertifying the eligibility of program subscribers whose eligibility cannot be verified through the National Verifier automated database connections. For USAC-conducted recertifications, USAC will be responsible for de-enrolling subscribers who do not respond or fail program recertification. For USAC-conducted subscriber recertifications, USAC to develop processes to inform participating providers about the status of USAC’s recertification efforts and results for their specific Affordable Connectivity Program subscribers.
D. Transfering Service
The FCC adopted transfer-specific consent and disclosure requirements for handling instances when Affordable Connectivity Program households seek to transfer their benefits to different service providers. The transfer-in provider must disclose orally or in writing, in clear, easily understood language to the household:
- that the household will be transferring its benefit to the transfer-in provider;
- that the effect of the transfer is that the benefit will be applied to the transfer-in provider’s service and will no longer be applied to service retained from the transfer-out provider;
- that the household may be subject to the transfer-out provider’s undiscounted rates as a result of the transfer if the household elects to maintain service from the transfer-out provider, and that
- the household is limited to one transfer transaction per service month with limited exceptions to reverse an improper transfer or address situations impacting the household’s receipt of program-supported service from a particular provider.
The Wireline Competition Bureau, in coordination with the Enforcement Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, will provide standardized disclosure and consent language that the providers will be required to present to households prior to initiating the transfer. The transfer-in service provider must certify under penalty of perjury that it has complied with the transfer requirements. The Wireline Competition Bureau in coordination with USAC will identify the appropriate mechanism for capturing this certification from participating providers.
E. Provider Withdrawal from the Affordable Connectivity Program
A participating provider may withdraw from the Affordable Connectivity Program at any time. Providers seeking to withdraw from the program must first notify USAC in writing at least 90 days before the effective date of withdrawal. The notice to USAC must contain the final date the provider will provide ACP-supported service to households and a statement confirming that as of the date of the notice to USAC the provider will cease enrolling new households, that the provider will cease advertising and marketing its participation in the Affordable Connectivity Program, and that the provider will notify its existing ACP households of its intent to exit the program. Upon receipt of this written notice, USAC and the FCC will remove the provider from the provider listings on the FCC’s website and the Companies Near Me tool. As an initial matter, participating providers that were automatically transitioned from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to the Affordable Connectivity Program must file an opt-out notice to USAC within 90 days of publication of this Order in the Federal Register; otherwise they will be considered to be affirmatively participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
The provider must also notify its existing Affordable Connectivity Program households of its intent to exit the program. Notice must be in writing, provided in formats accessible to individuals with disabilities, and sent to existing ACP households 90 days, 60 days, and 30 days before the effective date of withdrawal from the program. Notice to households must include the final date of service, the amount the households will be expected to pay if they remain with the provider after the provider exits the program, the effective date of such charges, and an explanation that once the provider exits the program, the benefit will no longer be applied to the account, unless the subscriber transfers its benefit to a different participating provider. The notice must also include instructions detailing how to find and select a new participating provider, instructions on how to transfer to a different provider, the web address for the FCC’s listing of participating providers and to USAC’s Companies Near Me tool, the telephone number and email address of USAC’s Affordable Connectivity Program Support Center, and the provider’s customer service telephone number. During this period, the provider must continue to provide program-supported service to enrolled subscribers until the effective date of withdrawal from the program.
VII. 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 program-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.
The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, in coordination with the Wireline Competition Bureau, will assess program-specific consumer complaints received by the FCC to determine whether there is a need for additional guidance or potential rule changes to address issues such as quality of service. The bureaus will regularly issue public reports regarding consumer complaints alleging provider non-compliance with program rules. The bureaus will assess the frequency and volume of program-related consumer complaints and different categories thereof in order to determine the appropriate frequency and content of these reports. The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau in coordination with the Wireline Competition Bureau and the FCC’s Senior Agency Official for Privacy will ensure that any personally identifiable information be excluded from complaint reports and data made publicly available to ensure compliance with the Privacy Act.
VIII. Sunsetting the Affordability Connectivity Program
Although the Affordability Connectivity Program has more than $14 billion in funding, the FCC is already developing plans to wind down the program. The Wireline Competition Bureau—in coordination with the Office of the Managing Director, the Office of Economics and Analytics, and USAC—will develop a forecast of the depletion of funding. The bureau, when developing wind-down procedures for the Affordable Connectivity Program, will identify a process for notifying the public of the timing of the end of the program as the funds are nearing depletion. Broadband providers will be required to obtain a household’s affirmative opt-in, either orally or in writing, to continue providing the household broadband service after the end of the Affordable Connectivity Program and to charge a higher rate than the household would pay if it were receiving the full ACP discount. The Wireline Competition Bureau will establish specific timeframes for such consumer opt-ins and the appropriate consumer notice. The wind-down procedures must also consider how the remaining funds will be distributed in the final month of the Affordable Connectivity Program, any timing considerations related to the reimbursement process, and other procedures necessary to smoothly wind down the program.
In the final month of the Affordable Connectivity Program, whenever that arrives, the Wireline Competition Bureau will implement procedures in the event reimbursement claims exceed the amount of remaining funds, but in no circumstances will reimbursements be less than 50% of the provider’s claim for that final month. If the remaining balance in the Affordable Connectivity Fund is sufficient to pay out 80% of each reimbursement claim submitted in the final month, the program will pay out 80% of each claim on a pro-rata basis, thus depleting the funding and ending the program. If, however, projections from USAC indicate that less than 50% of claims can be paid out on a pro-rata basis for the expected final month of the Affordable Connectivity Program, then USAC shall immediately notify the Wireline Competition Bureau, the Office of Economics and Analytics, and the Office of the Managing Director. If staff agree with USAC’s projections, then USAC will pause the reimbursement process for the final month, and instead staff will determine how best to use the remaining funds.
- 501(c)(3) organizations are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
- The Privacy Act requires federal agencies to publish a notice in the Federal Register for each system of records that an agency maintains. A system of records contains information that is retrieved by an individual’s name or other unique identifier. The notice ensures that privacy considerations have been addressed in implementing the system.
Kevin Taglang is Executive Editor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society