Louis Corsaro first heard he might be eligible for a new government-funded discount on his internet bills from his internet provider, Comcast. Corsaro, a spokesperson for Point Park University, received an email in May about the Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Broadband Benefit program and followed the instructions to apply through the FCC's verification site.
He answered questions about who he is and why he qualified — his daughter has a disability and is on Medicaid — and soon received an email back. "Your application has been approved," the email read. It included instructions to sign up with his internet service provider, so Corsaro went to Comcast's website and filled out the required form.
Soon after, he was rejected.
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."
The FCC announced this week it had already signed up 2.3 million households for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was designed to help people during the pandemic. But while the agency is heralding these numbers as a success, the program appears to be plagued by ongoing issues that are causing some ISPs to block eligible Americans from accessing up to $50 a month off of their internet bills. Those delays have real consequences for people like Corsaro: The $3.2 billion pot of funding is only expected to last a matter of months.
'Wish I could fire Spectrum'
It's hard to know how widespread the problem is, but several Reddit threads include comments from users caught in the same cycle Corsaro described with both Comcast and Spectrum. One Redditor said they'd made more than 10 calls and even a trip to a local Comcast Xfinity store but still hadn't sorted out the situation. "One customer rep even flat out told me I'd have the best luck getting it by changing providers which is probably what I'm going to do since my contract is up next month," they wrote.
Another user described a similarly Kafkaesque journey with Spectrum, during which they received multiple emails asking them to complete the FCC's verification process after they'd already been approved. When the Redditor finally gave up and asked Spectrum to cancel their application, they said a Spectrum rep couldn't even find the application in the system. "Wish I could fire Spectrum, but they unfortunately have a monopoly in my area for internet and they know it," the Redditor wrote.
Corsaro struggled for weeks to get a clear answer as to why his application was being held up. Some customer service agents said the problem was on his end. Some told him it was an internal issue Comcast was trying to solve. One said that some information from the FCC's verifier site isn't properly transferring to Comcast's system. Corsaro thought he saw a light at the end of the tunnel when that rep offered to manually input the missing information into Comcast's system — but that plan failed too.
It was only after Protocol contacted Comcast for this story that Corsaro got a call saying his case had been "elevated" on Wednesday. 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."
Elm Street v. Elm St.
While Corsaro's issue might be somewhat unique, another possible explanation for some of the problems people are facing is simply lousy database matching between the Universal Services Administrative Co., 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. "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," Comcast spokesperson Joel Shadle said in a statement. He noted that Comcast is "continually working with the FCC and USAC to make the process easy to navigate."
Corsaro said one customer service rep along the way did ask him whether he'd entered his middle name during the FCC verification process, but he couldn't remember, and the verifier site didn't offer him any way to check. Besides, the idea that such a small discrepancy could be the issue seemed like a problem all on its own. "Here you have the last four digits of my social, my name, my address, all this identifying information, and I'm getting declined because of a middle name?" Corsaro said. "There's clearly massive issues here."
FCC press secretary Paloma Perez said the agency is aware of the issue and 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."
Perez pointed to a bulletin USAC sent to internet providers this week, announcing a series of updates that might address some of these problems, including giving providers like Comcast and Spectrum easier ways to look up their customers. Instead of having to enter customers' information "exactly as it appears on the consumer's National Verifier application," the bulletin reads, beginning June 24, providers will be able to look customers up "using only the consumer's application ID from the National Verifier, their first and last name, and their date of birth."
Spectrum spokesperson Rich Ruggiero said these changes "will address the enrollment challenges that can result — regardless of provider — if the customer's [personally identifying information] doesn't match exactly with was on their application with the verifier." Comcast's Shadle also said the USAC updates should "further streamline this process for customers."
But that change is still weeks away and more than a month since the emergency broadband program launched. The matching problem is also hardly the only issue customers are experiencing trying to get enrolled in the program. Both Corsaro and the nursing student reached out to Protocol after reading our earlier story about how Spectrum is requiring all applicants to the program to agree at the outset to receive continued service at non-discounted prices once the program ends.
For Corsaro, the process of calling Comcast daily has been a headache, but a manageable one. While he says the discount would certainly help, his family already has internet access, and he has the time and ability to keep following up. It's the bigger picture that concerns him. "There are probably people in much more dire situations than me, who need this more than I do," he said. "I wonder what happens when they aren't able to follow up ... and follow up."