Some broadband users who qualify for the government’s new $50-per-month subsidies haven’t been able to obtain the discounts because of technical problems in the Federal Communications Commission’s rollout of the program.
The problems stem from the FCC’s National Verifier and how the broadband providers’ systems interact with the FCC database, as detailed in an article published by Protocol today. Small mismatches between entries in databases—such as having an address recorded as «Elm St.» in an ISP’s system and «Elm Street» in the FCC’s—can cause people’s applications to be rejected.
ISPs may be partly to blame as some collected information in the wrong format despite having received training on how to use the system from the FCC. In hindsight, though, the FCC could have allowed ISPs to use the program without requiring such strict data matching. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) was rolled out quickly relative to other government programs because of the pressing need to get subsidies to consumers, and the FCC hasn’t been able to fully stamp out this problem in the month since the program began.
The FCC is working on fixes scheduled to roll out over the next couple of weeks, and ISPs have been in frequent communication with the agency. But customers continue to have problems in the meantime. People can apply for the subsidy at the program website, but they may run into frustrating snags when they follow up with their ISP.
Comcast and Charter customers stymied
Customers of Comcast and Charter have suffered this problem, as Protocol noted. But it appears to have affected numerous ISPs since the program began on May 12. Comcast and Charter have the most residential broadband customers in the US—over 60 million combined—and thus have more customers who could be wrongly denied the subsidy.
Protocol interviewed Louis Corsaro, who said he qualifies for the Emergency Broadband Benefit but has had his applications rejected by Comcast repeatedly over the past few weeks. Corsaro applied through the FCC’s verification site and quickly received an email response that said, «Your application has been approved.» The email «included instructions to sign up with his Internet service provider, so Corsaro went to Comcast’s website and filled out the required form.»
But Comcast rejected his application, Protocol wrote. The article continued with a description of Corsaro’s plight and a similar situation involving Charter’s Spectrum Internet service:
Over the last several weeks, Corsaro said he’s reapplied and been rejected by Comcast another three times. He’s followed the circuitous trails of automated FCC phone lines that all lead to dead ends and appealed to the kindness of mystified Comcast agents, who have told him again and again that he needs to finish the FCC’s verification process. «I keep telling them, ‘I’ve been approved. There’s nothing to finish,'» Corsaro said.
He’s not alone. A nursing student in California, who asked to remain anonymous to protect information about her income status, told Protocol she’s been experiencing the same problems with Spectrum. Like Corsaro, she also received an email from the FCC saying she was approved. And like Corsaro, she’s also been repeatedly rejected by Spectrum and told to complete the FCC eligibility screening. «It seems like everyone is very confused,» she said. «Once they do their application on their end, everything just goes into the void.»
People with low incomes or who suffered a substantial loss of income since the pandemic began to qualify for the subsidies. There are other ways to qualify, such as by participating in Medicaid or other assistance programs. Corsaro’s household qualified because his daughter has a disability and is on Medicaid.
«It was only after Protocol contacted Comcast for this story that Corsaro got a call saying his case had been ‘elevated’ on Wednesday,» the news site wrote. «Corsaro said a Comcast rep explained that the problem stemmed from the fact that Comcast’s website didn’t initially include a field to enter his daughter’s name, and his daughter’s Medicaid coverage is what made him eligible for the program. ‘She took my daughter’s info and redid the application,’ Corsaro said. ‘She said she will call me every day until it is resolved.'»
Besides the two people who talked to Protocol, customers have complained about the same problem in Reddit threads about both Comcast and Charter.
1,000 ISPs in subsidy program
Over 1,000 fixed and mobile ISPs across the US are participating in the subsidy program. In addition to being the nation’s largest home-Internet providers, Comcast and Charter accept the subsidies on a wider range of service plans than some other major ISPs. Both factors give the large cable companies the biggest number of residential customers who could possibly be affected by the FCC-subsidy problem.
Verizon has frustrated customers by limiting the plans on which they accept the subsidy, forcing people to switch to different and sometimes more expensive plans in order to get the temporary $50 monthly discount. AT&T offers the subsidy on only a few home-Internet plans.
By contrast, Comcast has said it offers the subsidy on all plans—even old ones it no longer sells to new customers. Charter is more restrictive than Comcast, as it forces customers on legacy plans to switch to new plans to get the subsidy. Charter offers the subsidies on all of its current Spectrum Internet plans except for the gigabit tier.
The FCC-run Emergency Broadband Benefit was created by Congress and funded with $3.2 billion. The pandemic-related program will continue until the money runs out or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic. Since it is temporary, people who face technical problems signing up could get the subsidy for fewer months than they are entitled to. So far, over 2.3 million people have successfully obtained subsidies, the FCC says.
FCC explains problem and upcoming fix
As Protocol noted, people are apparently being rejected because of «lousy database matching between the Universal Services Administrative Co. [USAC], which is the FCC-designated organization that runs the program, and the Internet service providers themselves. It turns out even the smallest differences in how people enter their data into the different systems can trip them up—for example, writing Elm St. in one and Elm Street in the other.»
The USAC announced today that, on June 15, it «will release a new search tool to assist service providers in determining a consumer’s application status and other information in the National Verifier.» On June 24, it will offer ISPs an additional way to enroll customers «using only the consumer’s application ID from the National Verifier, their first and last name, and their date of birth.»
The FCC said it is «working closely with consumer groups and participating providers to make sure that eligible households are enrolled in the program with the provider of their choice and receiving the benefit. We are also trouble-shooting challenges that would be expected when standing up a program of this size and this quickly, and we are implementing solutions like those described in the bulletin USAC recently shared with EBB participating providers.»
Strict matching required to protect privacy
Currently, ISPs run into problems when they search the FCC database for the information of a customer who has been approved for the subsidy. The ISP’s own data on that customer must match the FCC’s data.
An FCC official who spoke to Ars on background today said that the system requires an exact match for privacy reasons. The agency doesn’t want to make it too easy for providers to access a customer’s personal information.
The FCC trained ISPs on how to use the program before it began, and that training included telling them the correct format for collecting customer data, the official said. The FCC also gave ISPs a three-week testing period in which they could make dummy applications to make sure everything worked correctly before the May 12 start date. But after the program began, some ISPs collected information in their own format and were unable to locate customers’ approvals when searching the FCC system.
While some ISPs had no problems using the system, the FCC has been helping others figure it out in the past few weeks, the official said. Once the USAC changes are implemented, ISPs won’t have to worry about the difference between «Street» and «St.» or other minor details. They’ll just need each customer’s application ID number, name, and date of birth to search the FCC system and sign people up. The FCC likely would have set the system up that way to begin with if it had foreseen the problem, as the official said they will be able to make the change in a way that doesn’t risk customer privacy.
Comcast and Charter expect improvements
Comcast told Ars that it is trying «to help as many customers as possible enroll in the EBB program, and we’re continually working with the FCC and USAC to make the process easy to navigate. We’ve learned in these early days of the program that the information consumers provide to an Internet provider must exactly match, to the letter, abbreviation, and number, the information they enter in the National Verifier. The recent efforts announced by USAC further streamline this process for customers. The FCC, USAC, third parties and our industry peers have all been great partners in the effort to make this program as effective as possible for consumers.»
Charter told Ars that the USAC announcement «addresses these issues and clearly isn’t provider-specific.» The company said «the USAC updates should address the enrollment challenges that arise—for any EBB-participating provider—when a customer’s personal information doesn’t match exactly their application with the National Verifier, and we are looking forward to using the new search tool once it launches on June 15.» Charter also said it is glad «that USAC listened to the concerns we and other providers raised and worked quickly to roll out a new search tool to address the issues.»
Other ISPs complained to FCC
ISPs and trade associations representing ISPs started complaining about the problem in filings to the FCC shortly after the program launched. The Missouri-based Ritter Communications told the FCC that «[a]pproximately 50 percent of all enroll transactions are returning errors, and Ritter staff is having to continually re-submit information in a slightly modified format until the system recognizes the subscriber that is being enrolled.»
Ritter said it reached out to the USAC help email address but did not get a timely response. Ritter added that «[p]resumably this is because of the extremely large number of inquiries the help desk is receiving given the short timeline associated with the launch of this critical new program.» Ritter provided these details in a May 27 petition for a waiver seeking more time to file for reimbursement from the program.
CenturyLink, which recently rebranded some of its services as Lumen, told the FCC in a similar petition that it had «faced myriad obstacles and challenges… ranging from difficulties accessing USAC’s systems to challenges verifying the eligibility even of customers known to be eligible. As of the filing of this petition, despite these extensive efforts, and despite having sought troubleshooting assistance from USAC throughout the process, Lumen has succeeded in enrolling only a single customer with the program, and that single customer was only finally enrolled today, May 26.»
NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents small ISPs, told the FCC last week that the problems «providers have faced since the launch of the EBB often come down to the ‘format’ of potential enrollees’ information as found on applications filed with the National Verifier—a provider must enter into the NLAD [National Lifeline Accountability Database] personal information, including addresses, belonging to the potential enrollee in the very same manner as the enrollee has on file in his or her application to the National Verifier.»
The NTCA continued:
For example, if an applicant enters his or her address on the application to the National Verifier and abbreviates ‘street,’ the failure to abbreviate on the part of a provider when attempting to enroll the subscriber will result in a rejection by the NLAD. This is common for both Tribal and non-Tribal consumers, as well as those already enrolled in the Lifeline program and those not participating in that program. In some instances, ‘trial and error’ (though time-consuming) can resolve the discrepancy—and when that fails, interaction with the Universal Service Administrative Company (‘USAC’) may help to resolve the problem and result in the eligible consumer being successfully enrolled in the NLAD. However, the sheer volume of EBB applicants prevented USAC from helping to resolve the enrollment problems experienced by many small, rural providers.»
The owner of RCN and Grande reported problems uploading information to the FCC database. LICT Corporation, which has 15 subsidiaries in nine states offering the subsidies, said its customer service reps «are receiving rejections and error messages when uploading the household data into the NLAD.»
WTA—Advocates for Rural Broadband told the FCC that «problems appear to be affecting small carriers that must manually upload their customer data into the NLAD, and appear to be concentrated predominately (but not entirely) upon households that do not currently receive Lifeline support but rather are claiming EBB eligibility under the school lunch, Pell Grant and substantial income loss categories.»
Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.