The FCC is taking a deep dive into claims by some ACA Connects members that misconduct is occurring within the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. In an ex parte filed earlier this week, representatives from Armstrong, Mediacom and WOW! said some EBB providers were performing unauthorized benefit transfers in an effort to boost reimbursement numbers.
“We need to make sure this program is well run and fair to consumers. And if consumers are having problems, I’m going to encourage them to file a complaint with the FCC, in part because we will help them resolve those issues, but also because it allows us to identify patterns and practices that may be problematic,” Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said at a press conference following the Commission’s Open Meeting Thursday.
The ACA Connects members said their staffs noticed the misconduct when performing the routine task of reaching out to enrolled households after learning from the National Lifeline Accountability Database that they had been transferred out of the program. In most cases, the households were surprised to learn that because a benefit transfer had occurred, the family could no longer apply their up-to-$50/month benefit toward the service they received from the ACA Connects member companies.
“Many of these households commonly assume the transfer occurred as a result of being contacted by another provider that promised an attractive deal—including, in some cases, a free phone—but did not make clear that taking the deal, which the household did, would require the household to transfer its EBB benefit to that provider,” the ex parte said. The providers also claimed that the benefit transfers tend to increase near the end of the month, indicating that bad actors are trying to add households shortly before the “snapshot date” used by the Commission to reimburse providers for their provision of the subsidy.
The FCC now has some extra time to examine the issue, thanks to Congress’s efforts to sign a funding bill that would extend government funding through Dec 3. The House voted 254-175 Thursday to approve a Senate-passed funding bill in the late afternoon, and it awaits President Biden’s signature.
The agency had a plan in place for a potential government shutdown, and the available funds would allow Commission staff to keep working through October 11. A separate line of funding is used to power the Commission’s auction operations, and Rosenworcel assured all that a government shutdown would not disrupt plans for an auction of 4,060 flexible-use licenses in the 3.45-3.55GHz band, scheduled to kick off on October 5. AT&T and T-Mobile are among the 33 companies that have qualified to bid for 10MHz blocks of the mid-band spectrum.
What the frenzy over a potential government shutdown has done is push discussions surrounding the infrastructure bill promising to deliver billions for broadband deployment to the side. But all seemed back on course at our press time, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicating that the bill was still on track to be voted on Thursday evening. Whether or not it passes remains to be seen.
The panic has also drawn attention away from the still-empty fifth seat at the FCC and the naming of a permanent chair. Rosenworcel’s term will come to close at the end of the year, and she didn’t give any indication as to if she’s heard anything from the White House on either open Commission position. She also did not indicate whether she would want to be re-nominated to the Commission at the end of her term, if that was an option posed by President Biden.
“I have no news to make on that front, but I can tell you that it is a privilege to come to work in this role for the American people every single day,” she said.