Today’s topic is a little bit of a weird one, but it’s valuable and widely-available enough that I wanted to make sure readers were aware of it.
A lot of folks are probably aware one way or another of a federal program that was spun up in the mid-1990’s called “Lifeline.” This program provided basically free basic phone and internet access to low-income customers, primarily those who participated in one of the main federal social insurance programs: SNAP, Medicaid, WIC, TANF, LIHEAP, and several others.
This program attracted a pretty bad reputation over the years, whether fairly or unfairly. Instead of the government simply providing free phone and internet service, fulfilling Lifeline obligations fell to individual carriers. They then contracted the duty out to subcontractors, who hired the rather obnoxious people pushing free cell phones and free cell phone service outside of public assistance offices nationwide. And finally, since the service only had to meet the most minimal 1990’s standards, even people who were eligible for the benefit often preferred to pay full fare for real phone and internet service (and later, for brand-name smartphones) rather than use the minimally functional equipment and service provided by Lifeline.
Periodic attempts at gradual reform of the program were made until the COVID-19 emergency. After that, the reform suddenly became not gradual, but immediate. On May 12, 2021, enrollment opened for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. This program largely overhauled and replaced the Lifeline program (although given how our administrative state works, the Lifeline program still technically exists). Instead of requiring you to enroll in a specific low-income broadband plan, the EBBP allowed eligible households to receive a $50 monthly credit against any new or existing home broadband connection.
Now bear with me: that program, EBBP, closed to new applicants on December 31, 2021, and was replaced with a third program: the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP, which functions almost-identically, but offers a discount of just $30 instead of EBBP’s $50. If you had already qualified for EBBP, that benefit will continue for the time being, although I assume EBBP beneficiaries will eventually be transitioned to the slightly less generous ACP.
Enrolling in ACP
Just like Lifeline and EBBP, you have to begin your application for ACP through the “Lifeline National Verifier,” run by the “Universal Service Administrative Company,” one of the hundreds of private companies we pay to run our welfare state. Most of the process mimics a traditional application for benefits, except the entire system piggybacks on our existing benefit system, so rather than collecting your information directly, or querying existing federal resources, you’re required to upload proof of your eligibility through their somewhat-clunky online interface.
The main issue at this step is that your proof of eligibility has to have an issue date no more than 6 months in the past, and most welfare benefits don’t have either issue or expiration dates. I’ve had the same SNAP and Medicaid cards for close to 5 years!
All of which is to say, it took me 3 attempts to get my documents accepted by the Lifeline National Verifier. I submitted a picture of my EBT card, a picture of my insurance card, and a screenshot of the DC benefits portal, and eventually they simply surrendered and approved my application. If you do have more recently dated benefits documents (and a scanner), you’ll probably have an easier time of it than I did.
Once you’ve finally been approved by LNV, you can then claim your discount through your wireless or broadband provider. This piece was pretty straightforward; my phone and cable providers both have popups when I log into my online account, but you can also just Google the name of your service provider and “ACP” and you’ll probably find a page like this one, for Xfinity (Comcast).
It can be frustrating to wait while you go through the LNV dance of documents, but there’s no point submitting your ACP application until your LNV application has been approved; your service provider will probably just query the LNV and turn down your application. That’s what Comcast did when I submitted my application to LNV and Xfinity simultaneously.
The mysterious “equipment credit”
There’s one piece of the program I haven’t explored, which is the “equipment credit.” According to the FCC, “eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.” My suspicion is that this will simply cause “participating providers” to charge exactly $150 for new equipment (a $50 “contribution” and a $100 “credit”), but if your modem or router does break down while you’re enrolled in the program, it’s almost certainly worth claiming the credit to replace it with a new one.