By Ryan Johnston
The Affordable Connectivity Program (“ACP”) is a federal broadband subsidy program that provides $30 a month ($75 on Tribal Lands) for those who qualify. As of April 2022, over 11.5 million households have already enrolled in the program.
The ACP has several significant differences from its predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (“EBB”) as detailed in a report by Olivia Wein, Staff Attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. The report explains what consumer protections have been implemented and how consumers can take advantage of them when enrolling for a broadband subsidy.
MONTHLY BENEFIT. ACP households are able to receive a “digital coupon” for up to $30 per month that can be used for the cost of any home broadband or cellular plan that includes data from a participating provider. On Tribal lands and in high-cost areas, this amount increases, maxing out at$75. Participants may also take advantage of a one-time benefit of up to $100 towards a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer through a participating provider. Regardless of the device’s price, a household must contribute between $10 and $50 towards the purchase price of the device. Households that received a device payment under the EBB are not eligible for an equipment subsidy via ACP.
While consumers are limited to one ACP benefit per household, payments can be used in addition to the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) Lifeline Program (this choice is not mandatory and is up to the consumer). In other words, consumers could combine the up to $30 ACP monthly benefit and the $9.25/month Lifeline benefit for a total discount of up to $39.25/month towards specified broadband services. Consumers should know that there are more ACP-covered services than Lifeline broadband services, so stacking benefits isn’t always going to be possible.
DEFINITION OF A HOUSEHOLD. In addition, the ACP benefit is available on a per household basis. Multiple benefits are available for an address if multiple households reside at the same address. The FCC defines a Household as any of the following:
- A married couple living together;
- A parent/guardian and a child living together; and
- An adult who lives with friends or family and is financially supported by them.
The FCC also provides examples of what constitutes more than one household living at the same address:
- Four roommates who live together but do not share money and
- Thirty seniors who live in an assisted-living facility but do not share money.
In essence, multiple individuals or family units that are financially independent of one another are considered separate households for the purposes of the ACP. Individuals and families can determine if multiple households are living at the same address by completing the ACP Household Worksheet (available in English and Spanish).
ADDRESS. Applicants that do not have a traditional postal address will need to describe where they reside using a mapping tool that is part of the online application. Consumers can also provide a hard copy map that identifies where the applicant resides as part of the paper application. Applicants will also be asked whether the address or location they reside at is temporary or permanent.
PAST DISCONNECTIONS & POOR CREDIT RATINGS. The report then highlights the critical consumer protections that ensure that all eligible consumers can maintain broadband subscriptions under the ACP. It explains that past disconnections or a bad credit rating is not a barrier to ACP participation. While a provider is still able to use a credit check to condition offers of devices and equipment that are not covered by the ACP, it cannot use a credit check to refuse broadband service to an eligible consumer. Further, if a household has a current past due balance with the same or a different provider, that provider cannot refuse broadband service based on that past due balance.
LATE PAYMENT TERMINATION. Once a household receives service through the ACP, service can be terminated if a consumer is more than 90 days late on a payment. Late payment termination must be based upon nonpayment of an ACP-covered service and unrelated to other charges. Participants must be provided with a notice of termination both sixty and then again thirty days before ending service.
TERMINATION NOTICES. 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. It may be delivered via email, mail, billing insert or statement, or text message. Households that dispute an allegation of non-payment with the provider may file a complaint with the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center.
SWITCHING PLANS. The report also notes that a consumer cannot be charged for switching plans. Under the FCC’s ACP rules, a household is not liable for an early termination fee. This means that ACP households need not worry about being locked into monthly payments for a service that does not meet their needs or is no longer affordable. A household on an existing plan switching to a different ACP plan can cancel the old plan and avoid any cancellation fees. An important note, providers cannot condition receipt of the ACP benefit on consumers changing their existing plan. They are allowed to give information about different products, but are prohibited from upselling or downselling.
About the author of the report, New Federal Benefit Provides Affordable Broadband Access, Olivia Wein has been an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center for over 20 years. She focuses on policies and programs that protect low-income consumers’ access to essential utility services, including energy, water, and broadband service. Olivia also serves on the boards of the Universal Service Administrative Company and the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition and she serves on the Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee.