Alternative Verification Processes Are Necessary for Effective ACP Enrollment

The ACP has been a massive success, and continuing to offer multiple paths to enrollment in the program is critical for this success to continue.

Created by Congress in the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provides a subsidy to broadband service providers who offer discounted service to eligible low-income consumers to ensure their households have broadband service. The program has been triumphant in helping to close the digital divide by addressing one of the key barriers to adoption: affordability. The ACP’s impact has been felt in communities across the nation. According to the Institute of Self-Reliance, there are approximately 20 million eligible households currently enrolled in the ACP nationwide. In fact, the program has proven so successful that it’s now running out of money to assist the public, and without continued funding, the program is at risk of being discontinued – potentially leaving millions of low-income households without access to an affordable broadband service. Using data provided by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), Common Sense Media — a media and technology policy advocacy group — projects that the ACP will run out of funds by May 2024.

Much of the ACP’s success can be attributed to the methods that have been used to verify eligible applicants. There are currently two methods used to validate that low-income consumers are eligible for the ACP: the National Verifier (NV) and an alternative verification process. The NV is an application system that verifies eligible participants for the ACP. If a consumer is participating in the Lifeline program, or another federal program listed as being in an eligible category (e.g., Medicaid enrollee, SNAP recipient, Pell grant recipient, etc.) included as part of the NV, a service provider can automatically enroll that consumer in the ACP. Households with students who participate in the free and reduced-price school lunch or school breakfast programs can be enrolled by the broadband service provider working with the school. 

Additionally, consumers can be approved for the ACP benefit through an alternative verification process established by some broadband service providers who have a program that provides discounted service to low-income consumers. The broadband service providers have their own method within this program to verify whether a particular applicant meets the requirements. USAC has allowed these providers to use their verification method to determine whether a consumer seeking to participate in the ACP meets the eligibility qualifications. 

These verification methods have made it easier for low-income households to enroll. In fact, over 25 percent of enrollees in the ACP were enrolled through the alternative verification process. Unfortunately, these alternative verification processes have raised concerns with some observers regarding waste, fraud and abuse as a basis to criticize the ACP.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report findings are often cited as a way to undermine the success of the program. The FCC sent a letter, cited within the report, agreeing with GAO recommendations to monitor anti-fraud related activity in the alternative verification processes and described its plans to address it. Claims of alleged waste, fraud, and abuse without acknowledging the FCC’s efforts to combat it appears like an attempt to simply undermine the success of the program and support for people who need broadband. The integrity of ACP should be maintained without hindering the efforts to provide qualifying low-income families with affordable broadband services.

Critics are now suggesting elimination of the alternative verification process altogether. The alternative verification process was included in the statute to authorize providers with existing low-income programs to use their own verification method to enroll ACP applicants. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated back in 2022, participating providers were required to “submit information as required by the Commission regarding the alternative verification process prior to seeking reimbursement,” and the Commission, after reviewing the proposal, would then notify the participating provider if its “alternative verification process will be sufficient to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse.” The FCC secured the alternative verification process by establishing a framework for providers to follow. That framework requires, at a minimum:

1. A description of how the participating provider will collect a prospective subscriber: 

(i) Full name;

(ii) Phone number;

(iii) Date of birth; 

(iv) Email address; 

(v) Home and mailing addresses; 

(vi) Name and date of birth of the benefit qualifying person if different than applicant;

(vii) Household eligibility criteria and documentation supporting verification of eligibility; and 

(viii) Certifications from the household that the information included in the application is true.

(2) A description of the process the participating provider uses to verify the required subscriber information contained in subpart (1) and why this process is sufficient to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse;

(3) A description of the training the participating provider uses for its employees and agents to prevent ineligible enrollments, including enrollments based on fabricated documents;

(4) A description of why any of the criteria contained in subparts (1)-(3) is not necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse if any of the criteria are not part of the alternative verification process; and

(5) A description of why the participating provider’s established program requires approval of an alternative verification process and why the participating provider proposes to use an alternative verification process instead of the National Verifier for eligibility determinations.

The FCC has extensive experience and expertise in evaluating the diligence and good-faith actions of providers; the agency must be given the flexibility to exercise this expertise in evaluating telecommunications agencies within its jurisdiction. In fact, in the ACP program itself where waste, fraud, and abuse was suspected, the FCC contacted those entities and remedial measures were taken. Recognizing the importance of allowing low-income consumers easy access to broadband, Congress appropriately provided flexibility in the method of verifying people for eligibility. It also granted the agency administering the program the oversight authority needed to ensure program integrity by requiring the FCC to approve the alternative verification process. 

In an attempt to deter waste, fraud, and abuse, we risk removing a valuable method in verifying subscribers to the ACP so we can help more low-income people use the essential communications tool of our time. According to USAC data, 4.7 million ACP participants are verified through the alternative verification process, making this process one of the highest enrollment tools for the program. Government subsidy programs are always at risk of fly-by-night charlatans attempting to take advantage of people and government efforts to provide them assistance. However, it is the charlatans that should be punished, not the people who are meant to benefit from the program. Let us not forget the goal of the ACP is to get low-income Americans connected. The alternative verification process is helping to do just that.