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A visit to Denver by a Federal Communications Commissioner this month to promote a little-used broadband discount left some households even more confused about how to actually benefit.

The Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers low-income households $30 to $75 a month to offset internet costs, has been claimed by about 27% of eligible users nationwide and only 20% in Colorado. It launched Jan. 1 and has been criticized for lack of promotion. But even those who are likely eligible and only now hearing about it — anyone on any sort of federal assistance is eligible — are unclear how to apply or whether they should even bother.

>> START HERE: Quick start guide for ACP through Comcast, CenturyLink and other ISPs

Brandon Hartley, who lives in an income-restricted apartment complex with a roommate in Boulder, was eager to switch from his $75 plan with Comcast to one for eligible low-income users. But then he learned it’s only for new customers.

“The last I spoke to them, they suggested having my roommate sign up for their service if they were a first-time customer, and putting it under their name,” Hartley said.

Hartley got confused, and rightly so, with Comcast’s pre-existing low-income broadband plan called Internet Essentials, which costs between $9.95 and $29.95 a month. That program excludes anyone who’s had Comcast service in the past 90 days. 

But for ACP, Comcast waived the 90-day rule through Dec. 31. Customers, however, still need to get approved by the federal government first. 

After approval, Internet Essential customers will get service for free. Meanwhile, everyone else “can get $30 off their non-Internet Essentials bill (even) if someone is in the middle of (their) contract,” said Leslie Oliver, a Comcast spokeswoman.

Hartley said he’d try again.

Workers from Comcast help residents in Denver learn more about the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14.2 billion federal program to help low-income households pay for internet service. Comcast offers a 100-megabit per second plan for $29.99 a month, which is free for customers eligible for ACP funds. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

In another case, Englewood resident Gretchen Boroush said she doesn’t want to lose her “Price for Life” service with CenturyLink at $45 a month. When she checked, she said a CenturyLink representative told her the guarantee would remain. But they wouldn’t give it to her in writing. 

She wants it in writing.

“So this program might last a couple of years; my price guarantee will last a lot longer,” Boroush said. “So that’s what I have to go with.”

ACP replaced last year’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provided a similar credit to low-income households who needed not just faster internet but help paying for it. Access became critical for students and remote workers in the pandemic, but not everyone could afford it. The federal programs bridge the digital divide, and also offer a higher ACP monthly benefit of $75 for those in tribal-specific programs, such as Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance.

But ACP went further. It removed restrictions and barriers that typically discourage those in need from applying. For ISPs to participate, they cannot require credit checks, seek penalties on past-due accounts, exclude existing or old customers or require a deposit. It’s also open to all internet plans of qualified providers.

“Consumers that qualify for ACP can apply the benefit to their existing broadband plan and don’t need to give up their grandfathered plan to receive the ACP benefit,” FCC Press Secretary Paloma Perez said in an email.

Virginia Lam Abrams, with Starry Internet, gets why many eligible customers haven’t opted in.  Her company works with public housing organizations to provide low-cost internet to residents in an apartment complex. That includes Denver Housing Authority, which offers a number of low-cost broadband options to its residents, like Starry Connect for $15 a month. But that doesn’t mean Starry signed up 100% of the tenants.

“We’re hearing a couple of things, and this is anecdotal, but in the early days of (ACP predecessor Emergency Broadband Benefit) and ACP, a lot of people were skeptical,” she said. “They don’t want to be tricked. People worry that there’s a catch.”

So when it got the chance, Starry became an FCC alternative verifier so it can handle the entire ACP enrollment process for its low-income customers.

Internet providers like Starry Internet work with low-income Coloradans who qualify for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Starry customers can now click a virtual button from their online account to enroll and receive the credit. The button takes the customer through the same federal verification process, but within Starry’s purview. Starry confirms the customer wants to join the government program and acknowledges that the benefit will end someday.

“That seamless enrollment process has been a huge benefit for families who have really struggled to, one, sign up for broadband in the first place, but, two, take advantage of the ACP benefit,” said Abrams, Starry’s executive vice president for communications and government affairs. “It’s a huge value to households that frankly are really struggling with household bills and inflation. The cost of everything is increasing fairly dramatically.”

Only 10% of Starry’s subscribers have signed up for ACP, though not all are eligible for the credit. But that’s why Starry continues to promote the savings at local events including the one in Denver earlier this month where FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks spoke..

If Denver Housing Authority residents already subscribe to Starry and register for ACP, their monthly payment goes down to zero. It’ll return to $15 when ACP ends but for now, there’s no end date in sight. Starks said there’s enough of the $14.2 billion program to last for several years. And when it’s close to running out, he’ll rally Congress to extend ACP.

Consumers start here

ACP enrollment starts with the Feds. 

Specifically, it starts here: the FCC’s National Verifier form at nv.fcc.gov/lifeline/?id=nv_flow.

Or by mail — print out forms in English and Spanish. There are also instructions in nine languages

To fill it out, applicants must:

  • Provide a Social Security number or other government ID number
  • Share their personal details like an address and birth date
  • Show proof of eligibility, which includes: 
    • Participating in SNAP, Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, SSI, WIC, Lifeline, National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program, Federal Pell Grant recipient in the current year or already meets a participating ISP’s low-income internet program eligibility.
    • Earning no more than twice the federal poverty level. That’s $27,180 for one person and $55,500 for a family of four.
Income guidelines for eligibility to get the $30 to $75 monthly discount as part of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. Annual income must be no more than 200% of federal poverty guidelines. This chart shows the maximum income for households between one to eight people. (Screenshot)
  • Verification also requires consent and acknowledgement that the government program will end. The offer is limited to one per household, not per person.

After getting approved, users then can share their eligibility number with their internet service provider or a new one (here’s a list of ISPs accepting ACP enrollees in Colorado).

More FAQs on the FCC site for the program are here.

ISP and their ACP process

  • Starry Internet encourages its low-income Starry Connect customers to press the button in their account to get verified and not much else. People who don’t live in public housing can still use the national verification process and then call Starry to get the ACP credit, Abrams said. The company has trained its customer service employees to help customers opt in by sharing the verification number and a date of birth. The $30 credit will show up on their monthly bills for as long as ACP is funding the service. More Starry information is here
  • CenturyLink requires customers to apply through the federal national verifier first. The applicant should use the same information that is on their CenturyLink account. After getting approved, use CenturyLink’s form to claim the discount so the company can link it to the customer’s account, confirmed Danielle Spears, spokeswoman for Lumen, the new name for CenturyLink. More information is available here.
  • Comcast sends ACP applicants to the national verifier page. Once approved, customers must complete the enrollment in their Comcast account. The ACP credit will be applied on the next bill. More Comcast details are available here. Separately, Comcast offers two low-cost internet plans under its Internet Essentials program, which start at $9.95 a month. But those customers must still get approved through the national verifier for the $30 ACP credit. While Internet Essentials excludes folks who’ve been a Comcast customer in the past 90 days, that’s been waived for ACP customers through Dec. 31.

Have a question about ACP for your ISP? Email reporter Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com and she’ll check it out and update this story.

Tamara Chuang

Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww....