I’ve recently talked to several small ISPs who are having trouble navigating the FCC’s Affordable Care Program (ACP). These ISPs are wondering if they should drop their participation. This is the program that gives a $30 monthly discount to customers who enroll in the plan through their ISP. The program is administered by USAC which also administers the various Universal Service Fund programs.
The stories I’ve heard from these ISPs show that the program is challenging to use and slow to reimburse ISPs. There is no one major specific complaint about the administration of the program but a string of problems. Consider some of the following (and the list of complaints is much longer):
- The rules are overly complex. As an example, an ISP must have different staff assigned to four functions – an Administrator, Operations, Analyst, and Agent. It turns out that various tasks can only be performed by one of these positions – something not explained in the rules.
- There doesn’t seem to be any training available to ISPs joining the program. Instead, ISPs have to wade through the 166-page FCC rulemaking that created the ACP program. The FCC says there have been over 700 training sessions for people on how to enroll new end-user customers, but the ISPs I talked to couldn’t find any online resources for explaining the program from the ISP perspective – no videos or no frequently asked questions helping ISPs figuring out how to get reimbursed from the program. .
- The ACP system returns unhelpful error messages when something doesn’t work. A common error message is “Your user name doesn’t seem to exist” which is returned for a variety of online problems encountered by people who are logged into the system and clearly have valid user IDs. Error messages for any online system ought to be worded to tell a user what they did wrong. For example, an error message that says, “This function can only be done by an Analyst” would help an ISP figure out the problem.
- There is a hotline for ISPs, but unfortunately, the folks manning the hotline can’t answer even basic questions about the online system and refer a caller to the written rules. It’s obvious that the people answering the calls have never navigated through the system.
- One ISP had been in the system for a while and found out it wouldn’t be paid for the discounts given to customers since the ISP hadn’t submitted a customer’s last four digits of a social security number. This doesn’t make sense since the FCC had ruled that the SSN is not needed to enroll a customer – the ACP rules allow for numerous other forms of identification. Customers didn’t need to input an SSN number to join the ACP, and the ISP never asked for them. They are now wondering if they will ever get reimbursed for these claims.
- There is a disconnect between customer approval and the ISP portal. Customers are told through the customer portal that they are successfully enrolled in the ACP program, but when an ISP asks for reimbursement, it is often told that it must provide more identification to get reimbursed. In this situation, the customer is already getting the discount while the ISP is not yet eligible for reimbursement and will end up eating the customer discount.
Overall, these ISPs told me that navigating the system and the rules is a major disincentive for them to participate in the ACP.
Why are these kinds of issues problematic for smaller ISPs? Bigger ISPs can assign a team to a program like this and give them enough time to figure out the nuances. Small ISPs have tiny staffs, particularly in the backoffice. Small ISPs can’t devote the many hours and days needed to solve the ACP puzzle. The small ISPs I’ve heard from are wondering why they are even bothering with ACP. The program is not bringing new customers but mostly is giving discounts to existing customers. There is no reimbursement for the hours the ISPs spend learning the system or navigating it each month. After all of the hassle, the ISPs are not receiving full reimbursement in every case, and even when they do, the payments are slow. ISPs have also heard through the grapevine that they will eventually be audited to make sure there is no fraud – anybody who has been through this kind of audit shudders at the idea.
Everything I read says that most of the discounts for ACP are being claimed by cellular resellers and not facility-based ISPs. I don’t know if that is finally changing, but if this isn’t made easier for ISPs, it’s likely that many ISPs will drop out or stop accepting additional ACP customers. The final issue ISPs worry about is that the program is only funded for perhaps two more years. They worry about the impact on their business if the program ends abruptly.
To be fair, any new online system has bugs. But ACP was launched in January and replaced the similar EBB program. We are now far past the initial launch window, and nobody seems to be working to make the system usable. The FCC wants to brag about how well ACP is doing, but they need to put some effort into making this worth the effort for ISPs.