The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) announced that it is implementing new program integrity measures for the enrollment of households in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) who also qualify for the Lifeline benefit.
“Consumer choice and consent are fundamental principles for both the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Lifeline program,” the WCB said in a statement. “No provider should undermine those principles or take advantage of consumers. Consistent with the commission’s rules governing the Affordable Connectivity Program, the measures we announce here strengthen program integrity and protect the ability of qualifying households to enroll in both the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Commission’s longstanding Lifeline program, and to apply their ACP benefit to their Lifeline service or a different service.”
The ACP is the successor program to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program, which was established in 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ACP was created as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law last year. Prior to the launch of the EBB Program, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued an advisory reminding broadband providers of their obligation to comply with the consumer consent requirements when enrolling consumers into the EBB Program. That advisory noted that providers were engaging in practices that may have been deceptive and threatened the integrity of the EBB Program.
According to the FCC, the EBB Program Enforcement Advisory made clear that “to avoid misleading consumers, providers must avoid practices or marketing that may confuse consumers about the EBB Program, including but, not limited to…. [n]ot clearly distinguishing the process of signing up for EBB services from the process of signing up for, renewing, upgrading, or modifying other telecom services, including Lifeline services.”
When establishing the ACP, the FCC recognized that these prohibited provider practices that occurred in the EBB Program may also threaten the integrity of the ACP. As with the EBB Program, the FCC adopted rules expressly prohibiting provider practices that link consent to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program to some other action or information supplied to the provider for purposes other than the ACP.
The FCC’s recent announcement of new integrity measures comes shortly after the FCC’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued an advisory raising concerns about potential waste, fraud, and abuse with respect to ACP enrollments. Specifically, the OIG advisory notes that certain providers participating in both Lifeline and the ACP are misleading consumers by requiring consumers to consent to enroll in the ACP as a condition of completing their Lifeline application. In addition, the FCC has received complaints that some providers are requiring consumers to apply their ACP benefit with that provider in order to enroll in the Lifeline program.
In a press release, the FCC said that the commission and its intra-agency partners are committed to addressing these issues, including by sharing information and program data and taking any additional necessary steps to improve program integrity and protect consumers in the ACP. The FCC said it will use the full range of its authority and available tools, including audit and investigatory procedures, and in cooperation with the FCC OIG and law enforcement agencies.