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Reenrollment Confusion?

'Time Is Working Against Us,' Broadband Experts Warn of ACP's Future

Industry officials are concerned about uncertainty surrounding the FCC's affordable connectivity program following the agency's recent announcement that ACP wind-down procedures were beginning and the ACP Extension Act was introduced (see 2401100056). Some warned about challenges associated with keeping the more than 22 million enrolled households online should the program end before additional funding is available. Even if the ACP Extension Act is successful, some observers predicted recipients may not return owing to reenrollment confusion or other issues.

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NTCA members are ACP "participants" and are "still processing the wind-down information," said Executive Vice President Mike Romano (see 2401110072). Some have questions about how to ensure "an orderly transition" once the program ends based on "consumer choices and the status of customer accounts," Romano said, and "we are hopeful that the FCC will provide further direction and clarity on these issues in the coming days."

Romano also expressed concern about how ending ACP would impact NTIA's broadband, equity, access and deployment program and "the ability of providers to offer low-cost options for service as contemplated in many current state proposals," he said: "We continue to hold out hope that Congress will pass the ACP Extension Act to provide additional ACP funding and avoid the potential for disruption for consumers and providers alike."

An FCC spokesperson told us the commission is communicating with providers and has "encouraged them to help ACP households transition to providers’ own low-income internet offerings." The FCC will "continue to support efforts in Congress to provide additional funding for this critical program," she said.

"Unfortunately, time is working against us," said Fiber Broadband Association President-CEO Gary Bolton. With notices already out alerting ACP households that the program is at risk of running out of funding in a few months, providers "will likely lose customers and consumers will lose internet connectivity," Bolton said. Consumers may also have to reenroll in ACP if the program is replenished, he said, which "creates a lot of chaos."

It will be "very difficult" to bring enrolled households back if ACP runs out of money before Congress considers the new legislation, Bolton said. Network operators will have other service options for ACP subscribers, but the subsidy will be gone, he said: "I fear that we will lose the trust of this very vulnerable and important segment of population, just when we are on the cusp of providing a bright future for low-income Americans."'

If ACP ends, it's likely to stay gone, said Sara Collins, Public Knowledge government affairs director. When a federal program ends, "it's really, really hard to get it spun back up again." Consumer demand for it to return might be tempered by lack of faith the program is stable, she said.

If nothing changes about ACP's fate, expect the next few months to produce many confused consumers and anecdotes about customers losing broadband access due to affordability or being shunted into programs that are poor fits, Collins said. "There is a lot of change that's going to be happening quickly," she predicted, adding it's likely some ISPs will perform better than others in clearly communicating how to transition to low-cost programs easily with little service interruption and billing changes.

Connectivity providers are likely rushing to make post-ACP plans, said Angela Sieger, National Digital Inclusion Alliance executive director. She said while many ACP recipients will migrate to providers' low-cost options, confusion could be sizable as eligibility can vary from provider to provider. She said it's also not clear that all providers will keep their low-cost plans and how they will judge eligibility without using the national verifier.

Asked about their planning for a possible end to ACP, numerous connectivity providers didn't comment or pledged they would continue to provide service to low-income households but didn't elaborate.

In an email, T-Mobile said it "has worked for years to deliver critical internet access to millions of people who might not otherwise have financial access to it." Pointing to ACP and the company's Assurance Wireless, Metro by T-Mobile, Project 10Million, Connect by T-Mobile and Lifeline offerings, T-Mobile said it has "delivered broadband benefits to millions of underserved Americans who depend on it -- and will continue to do so." AT&T emailed it's "following the FCC’s ACP wind-down rules that include notices to households enrolled in the ACP about the potential end to the program, and we continue to urge Congress to extend the program that has helped connect millions of people.” Likewise, Verizon called for "a sustainable solution" to keep ACP.

Altice emailed that its Optimum operation is "committed to bridging the digital divide by providing affordable and accessible internet and mobile services." The company said it's "closely monitoring for updates and guidance on the future of the program and will keep our customers informed on how they can stay connected to their Optimum services as we continue to provide low-cost options to meet the needs of all our customers."

Mediacom already markets low-cost options to ACP and non-ACP households and will likely do so during a wind-down period for ACP households, said Tom Larsen, senior vice president-government and public relations. A Cable One spokesperson said the company "offered low-cost options prior to ACP, and will continue to make them available in the event ACP ends." She added marketing low-cost options targeting ACP recipients hasn't started yet as the cabler is "waiting on definitive news from the FCC."