Spectrum is forcing customers who are eligible for a new federal subsidy for internet service to opt in to full-price plans once the subsidy runs out. The policy appears to skirt rules set forth by the Federal Communications Commission, which is running the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.
The $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit, which launched earlier this month, gives people up to $50 off of their monthly internet bill. The stopgap funding was allocated in response to the pandemic and is expected to run out within the year. To protect people from being automatically enrolled in more expensive plans once the money runs out, the FCC required internet service providers to give consumers notice that the program is about to end and get customers' explicit consent before continuing their service at a higher price.
Spectrum, however, appears to be doing the inverse. Rather than giving potential applicants the option to continue their coverage at full-price, it's requiring them to do so in order to receive the benefit at all.
"Yes, customers opt in at the time of enrollment to continue receiving service once the program ends," Charter spokesperson Rich Ruggiero told Protocol on Tuesday. "Customers will receive notice 30 days before the program ends, and can make a decision about keeping or terminating their service."
Paloma Perez, a spokesperson for the FCC, said internet service providers "must collect that opt-in affirmation to continue providing the broadband service after the program ends, but they may do so at the time of EBB enrollment." But it's unclear whether a forced opt-in complies with the FCC's rules.
"If participating [Emergency Broadband Benefit] providers are making it harder for consumers to receive the support they need to get online, they need to knock it off," acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel told Protocol. "I urge consumers who have faced this issue to come to us and share their experience at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. It's one of the swiftest ways we can get to the bottom of what is going on and address it."
Requiring people to opt in in order to even enroll in the benefit program opens the possibility that people could forget to cancel their plans and be hit with higher monthly fees, which is what the FCC hoped to avoid with these rules. The Emergency Broadband Benefit is intended for low-income Americans, people living on tribal lands and people whose income was impacted by the pandemic.
In a frequently asked questions section of the Spectrum website, which lays out facts about the Emergency Broadband Benefit, Spectrum warns customers that when the emergency broadband benefit program ends, enrollees in that program will "continue to receive Spectrum Internet service at the undiscounted monthly rate of the plan you selected, subject to Spectrum's terms and conditions, which includes the right to terminate anytime without penalty."
As of Tuesday, two weeks into the program's implementation and after more than 1 million people had enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit, Spectrum's FAQs made no mention of the opt-in requirement. Instead, the FAQ says, "We'll alert you of the last date or billing cycle that will include this benefit program. We'll also tell you if you qualify for a partial month benefit and the cost of your service after the program ends."
The FCC's Perez told Protocol that the commission is in contact with Charter "to ensure its webpage more accurately represents the FCC rules regarding the need for consumers to affirmatively opt in to continuing to receive internet service from Charter once the Emergency Broadband Benefit program concludes."
Digital equity advocates have been on the lookout for ISPs trying to impose hidden costs, fees and requirements on enrollees in the program. Last week, The Washington Post reported that Verizon was requiring existing customers to sign up for sometimes more expensive plans in order to receive the emergency funding.
"I'm sure we're going to hear more stories like this," Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said about the Post's reporting at the time.
Siefer said that a key part of convincing people to sign up for the program is helping them understand the protections the FCC has put in place for consumers, including the opt-in requirement.
Update: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Charter and the FCC acting chair