FCC Politely Tells ISPs To Stop Abusing Covid Broadband Relief Program To Rip Off Poor People
from the yeah-maybe-stop-doing-that dept
During the COVID crisis the FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB program), which gives lower income Americans a $50 ($75 for those in tribal lands) discount off of their broadband bill. Under the program, the government gives money to ISPs (not exactly ideal given the industry’s history of fraud), which then dole out discounts to users if they qualify. But (surprise), many found that big ISPs erected cumbersome barriers to actually getting the service, or worse, actively exploited the sign up process to force struggling low-income applicants on to more expensive plans once the initial contract ended. Very on brand.
The program was recently renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and made permanent via the infrastructure bill, albeit at a reduced discount rate of $30 a month (still $75 on tribal lands). And because the reboot requires new rules, the FCC has proposed tightening up the rules surrounding the program to ensure the large predatory ISPs don’t exploit it to make an extra buck. More specifically, the FCC says ISPs will be required to offer the discounts across all tiers, including legacy and “grandfathered” (older, possibly cheaper plans that they may not sell any more) plans:
“We also do not think that Congress intended to exclude consumers on existing legacy or grandfathered plans from participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program. We further clarify that the requirement that legacy or grandfathered plans be eligible for reimbursement does not require that providers offer such legacy or grandfathered plans to other customers, including ACP-eligible customers, that are not already on such plans.”
Basically, big ISPs were claiming that it was too technically cumbersome to provide a $30 discount to plans they no longer actively sold. Consumer groups argued this was bunk, and this was the industry’s way of tap dancing around the fact they were using a program designed to help the poor as an opportunity to upsell users (like that time Verizon Wireless tried to first throttle, then upsell, firefighters battling historic wildfires). This behavior is just who they are. It’s in their DNA after decades of being government-pampered regional monopolies that face little real accountability.
Note this is still just an FCC proposal, and will still require a vote of approval from an FCC that remains intentionally gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners. It also bears repeating that you wouldn’t need proposals like this if Congress and U.S. policymakers were willing to target the real cause of high broadband prices across the U.S.: regional monopolization, and the state and federal corruption that protects it. But we don’t, so we get these band-aid proposals big ISPs try to exploit that don’t cure the underlying disease.
That’s not to say this EBB/ACP program isn’t helping. Over 9 million homes are enrolled in the program (a total that would be higher if ISPs didn’t make the application process so cumbersome). And I’ve talked to several communities deploying their own gigabit fiber in the last month who say they’re first targeting low-income areas as part of their broader projects, where many struggling users will see bills close to $0 per month for gigabit broadband once the discount is applied. If you’re a struggling low-income American trying to survive during COVID, that’s a big deal.