Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in our country, millions of Americans cannot connect to the internet because they can’t afford to, preventing them from going to school, working, accessing government benefits and connecting with friends and family. To remedy this problem, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which offers low-income consumers a $50 discount on their internet bills. Unfortunately, because of a shortcoming in the National Verifier, the database used to verify consumer eligibility for the program, many of those in need do not access this important benefit, ultimately keeping the digital divide open.
Let’s paint the picture of how. Imagine you can’t afford broadband, and learn that, because you participate in a relevant federal program (like SNAP, Medicaid, free/reduced school meals, etc.), you are eligible for the EBB. Huzzah! To apply, you are told to use the Lifeline National Verifier. The Verifier is intended to be a one-stop shop to verify consumer eligibility for the EBB based on their participation in a different federal program. The idea is that eligible consumers enter their information on the National Verifier website and are approved if the database shows they do, in fact, participate in one of the qualifying federal programs. However, the Verifier doesn’t always work that way, because it doesn’t have data about participation in all qualifying programs. So, frustratingly, if the Verifier doesn’t have data about the program you quality through, you have to go through a whole big process to get documentation that you are eligible. Since you don’t have a lot of time on your hands as the head of a household, and don’t have the internet, you never end up enrolling and stay without internet.
Why is this issue with the data happening? Below, I’ll break it down.
What is the National Verifier? In short, it’s a database that is supposed to validate a consumer’s identity, address, and participation in qualifying programs. It’s intended to streamline enrollment for not only the EBB, but also Lifeline and any future broadband subsidies (like the Affordable Connectivity Fund proposed in the bipartisan infrastructure package). It’s also intended to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. The Verifier is run by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a non-profit corporation that administers the Universal Service Fund on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission.
How does the Verifier work? If the Verifier worked properly, consumers would simply enter their identifying information (e.g., name, date of birth) and the assistance program that qualifies them to be eligible into the Verifier’s website and be automatically approved to participate in the EBB. However, because the Verifier does not have information about all qualifying programs, some consumers will have to submit documentation proving that they participate in a qualifying program (either online or through the mail), and then have that information manually reviewed by USAC staff (the so-called “manual review process”). As you can imagine, it’s not always easy to get documentation about your enrollment in a particular program, particularly if you don’t have the internet. And then you’d still have to get it to USAC, something which could require an additional trip to the library or post office, which you may or may not have the resources to make (for example if you don’t have a car or can’t take off work). Because of this added burden, many consumers simply abandon their applications. In fact, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than two-thirds of applicants who underwent manual review between June 2018 and June 2020 did not complete their applications.
Why doesn’t the Verifier have data about all qualifying programs? The first thing to know is that data about relevant federal programs is spread out amongst hundreds of state, federal, and Tribal entities because the federal government doesn’t always administer their own programs (crazy, right?). For example, each state keeps their own data about who participates in SNAP. In order to get data about all of the qualifying programs, USAC has to enter into something called a “memorandum of understanding” or “computer matching agreement/data matching agreement” with each federal, state, and Tribal entity that has relevant data. These “MOUs” or “CMAs” are basically a contract saying what data is shared with USAC, what USAC can use the data for, and how USAC must protect the data. USAC would have to enter into hundreds of different MOUs, with multiple programs per state, some federal and some Tribal entities.
As of November 2020, the Verifier had connections with just two federal databases, and at least one database in 20 different states. Unfortunately, that means the majority of Lifeline (and probably EBB) subscribers live in states without state database connections to the Verifier. For those applying for the EBB, the problem is compounded, because there are so many new qualifying programs, and USAC hasn’t yet created MOUs for all of them!
Even if USAC wanted to get MOUs with every agency holding data on qualifying programs, it couldn’t. Sometimes relevant agencies don’t agree to share data because they don’t have the capacity. Other times, agencies want to share, but they interpret privacy laws as preventing them from doing so, or they feel like they could share data with another government agency, but not a hybrid entity like USAC. Even when agencies agree to share, it can take months or years to get the MOU signed, and then many additional months or even years to start sharing the data.
Why does this matter? Consumers who have to undergo a manual review process are unlikely to complete their applications and enroll in the program (again, as GAO found, 68% of applications for the Lifeline program requiring manual review were abandoned). This is likely because getting and submitting documentation that you participate in a qualifying program is simply too burdensome for many low-income consumers who already don’t have internet.
How do we solve this problem? Congress must step in by enacting legislation to require that any agencies that have data share it with USAC in a timely manner, and to clarify that data sharing for verification purposes is legal. To the extent Congress needs to exempt such data sharing from existing privacy laws, it should include that in the legislation. Such laws are intended to protect a recipient’s privacy, but are not intended to be a roadblock to participation in other benefits programs. Moreover, the data to be shared is sufficiently minimal that it does not carry with it the broader privacy risks addressed by our privacy laws. Absent Congressional action, we will be left with a patchwork system, enabling some consumers to breeze through the application process, while others cannot.
The ease of enrollment directly correlates to the number of consumers that enroll. If we want to ensure that the EBB (and any future broadband subsidy) can fulfill their purpose of getting low-income consumers connected and narrowing the digital divide, Congress must ensure that all potential participants can be automatically verified through the Verifier.