FCC Creates Consumer Friendly Rules for the Affordable Connectivity Program

The new Affordable Connectivity Program provides eligible consumers with a discount on their broadband bill. The program will help millions of Americans connect to the internet. Read more to learn about the program, whether you qualify, and what still needs to be done.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission released its final rules for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a five-year $14.2 billion successor program to the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The ACP, created by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Infrastructure Act), provides eligible consumers with a discount on their broadband bill. This program will help millions of Americans connect to the internet even if they could not otherwise afford to. Below, learn more about the program and its implementation. 

Affordable Connectivity Fund: A Summary

The Affordable Connectivity program gives eligible consumers a $30 monthly discount on their broadband bill (or a $75 discount for those residing on Tribal lands or in an as yet to be defined “high cost area”). Consumers can use this discount on any plan offered by a participating provider. Eligible consumers can also get one discounted laptop, desktop, or tablet per household – for which their internet service provider will charge them between $10-50. 

Consumers are eligible if they participate in a number of government and Tribal programs (including Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, free or reduced school meals, Pell Grants or Federal Public Housing Assistance), if they are below 200% of the federal poverty line, or if they are eligible for a participating provider’s low-income program. Consumers can enroll by visiting ACPBenefit.org, or reaching out to their provider (if they already subscribe to the Lifeline program or a provider’s low-income internet service). Consumers should note that not all providers will participate in the ACP – so you can visit fcc.gov/affordable-connectivity-program-providers to find out if yours does. 

The ACP Protects Consumers

The new ACP rules include significant consumer protections stemming from both Congress and the Commission. Amongst the most positive changes for consumers are:

  • Consumers can apply the ACP discount to any plan they are enrolled in, including grandfathered plans. This will enable ACP recipients the same choice in plan as everyone else, and will ensure that consumers on grandfathered plans can still participate in the ACP. This requirement has the additional benefit of preventing providers from upselling consumers (as some did during the EBB), because they cannot claim that only higher cost plans are eligible for ACP support.
  • Providers can’t immediately terminate your service for non-payment and deny your enrollment in the ACP because of past or present debts. Providers can, however, switch a consumer who has not paid their bill into a plan that will be fully covered by the ACP benefit so that they can continue to have service temporarily without incurring more debt.
  • Consumers can verify their identity as a part of the application process without giving their social security number. Instead, consumers can verify their identity with individual taxpayer identification numbers, green cards, or driver’s licenses.
  • Consumers will be more aware of the ACP. Many eligible consumers did not participate in the EBB – likely because they didn’t know about it. In fact, of households making below $50,000 a year, just 23% had heard of the Emergency Broadband Benefit. A more concerted focus on outreach and advertising will encourage more eligible consumers to enroll in the ACP. 
    • To promote the benefit, the Commission will engage in a “wide range of outreach,” and will require providers to publicize the ACP benefit. The Commission is also considering establishing an outreach partner grant program that would fund community-based organizations to conduct outreach and help eligible individuals enroll in the program. This grant program, if adopted, will be key for ensuring that all eligible consumers enroll — consumers are far more likely to trust information coming from local non-profits, schools, and libraries, and often seek help with the enrollment process from these entities.

A Tricky Transition 

Transitioning from the EBB to the ACP is likely to present difficulties, but the Commission handled this transition thoughtfully and deftly in its final rules. For example, if EBB subscribers were automatically transitioned into the ACP, some could be left with a copay that they cannot afford, because the ACP subsidy is $20 lower than the EBB subsidy. However, if the FCC made consumers affirmatively opt into participating in the ACP, they may face undue burden. The Commission balanced these competing challenges by adopting a hybrid approach: Consumers who will not see a change to their benefit amount, or who have demonstrated a willingness and ability to pay for broadband service (such as by paying a fee for an EBB supported service or paying for internet before enrolling in the EBB program), will be automatically enrolled in the ACP, while consumers who will have a new copay must opt in. This hybrid approach protects the most vulnerable consumers while minimizing burden for others. 

The ACP Will Leave Gaps in Connectivity

All that said, despite the Order’s many consumer protections, there are still some policy gaps that will prevent the Commission from closing the digital divide. For example: 

  • The Commission did not fix the device discount component of the ACP. Although device access is a key to closing the digital divide and increasing enrollment in the ACP, the device discount component of the program has been underutilized due to limited provider participation. Many providers expressed that offering devices is outside of their wheelhouse. The Commission missed an important opportunity to improve this component of the program in its final rules. First, it is silent on our suggestion to promote device access by encouraging providers to partner with manufacturers, refurbishers, and retail outlets to distribute devices. Such a solution would comply with the law (which directs the individuals’ ACP provider to offer the discounted device) and improve provider comfort with unfamiliar activities. Second, it did not allow households who received a connected device through the EBB program to receive another through ACP, thereby preventing simultaneous household connectivity. Absent enough devices for every family member, families will continue to face difficult choices about who can engage online at any given time — including choices about which student can connect to remote classes, or if a parent must forgo remote work in favor of another’s telehealth appointment. This gap in the Commission’s decision will prevent many families from meaningfully engaging online.
  • The Commission did not streamline the re-enrollment process for any EBB subscriber who is disconnected from service because they miss initial calls to opt into the program. Some consumers may miss initial notices to opt into the program and will therefore be disconnected from their service. If these consumers want to re-enroll, they must go through the potentially burdensome verification process again. Although this is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, that risk is extremely low since these customers were recently deemed eligible. Requiring consumers who were recently verified to go through the process again serves no other purpose than to jeopardize enrollment. The Commission should have given a six month waiver on the need to go through re-enrollment. 

What’s Next

Now that the rules are final, we need to get eligible consumers signed up. If you know someone who could benefit from the ACP – print out this blog post and get it to them! (Yes, we do recognize the irony of posting online about a program intended to help people who are not connected.) 

Advocates can also work with policymakers to fill in the few program shortfalls. For example, you can encourage Congress to pass the Device Access for Every American Act so that no household has to go without a computer or tablet and states taking infrastructure money can use it to create device voucher programs. Meanwhile, any state or federal agencies that have data about qualifying programs should share it with USAC to verify eligibility. This would significantly reduce the burden for those applying initially and re-enrolling after forgetting to opt-into the ACP. Additionally, state and local social services staff should help spread the word by informing recipients of eligible social services about the ACP and how it can help get their families connected. This is a critical touch point in promoting enrollment in the ACP to benefit these low-income families. Together, we can use the ACP to get everyone connected.