Next Steps on Affordable Connectivity Program Transparency
Wednesday, January 4, 2023
Next Steps on Affordable Connectivity Program Transparency
Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just created the Affordable Connectivity Program Transparency Data Collection in rules released on November 23, 2022, there is still a great deal of work to be done to collect information related to the price, subscription rates, and plan characteristics of the internet service offerings of Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) participating providers. First, implementation of the rules now falls to FCC staff; many details will be decided in the coming weeks. Second, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress directs the FCC to revise the rules of the ACP Transparency Data Collection to verify the accuracy of the data submitted no later than 180 days after the final rules were issued and to make data from the annual collection publicly available in a commonly used electronic format while also protecting personally identifiable information and proprietary information. Here we look at what's on the FCC's agenda in efforts aimed at determining the value being provided by the affordable connectivity benefit to households and evaluating progress towards reducing the digital divide.
Next Steps at the FCC
The FCC's November report and order creating the new data collection delegates implementation of the rules to FCC staff—mainly the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau. In the coming weeks, here's what the bureau will be working on.
1. Data Collection Mechanics
The FCC gives the bureau authority to establish a reasonable data submission date for the inaugural collection, which will be no earlier than 90 days after the FCC announces that the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has completed any review that the bureau determines is required under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The bureau will set an annual "snapshot" date; it is enrollment data from that date that providers will send to the FCC. There will be at least 60 days between the snapshot date and the data submission date. The bureau will remind providers of these dates each year.
The bureau—in consultation with the Office of Economics and Analytics, the Office of Managing Director, and the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC)—will establish the electronic format for the submission of aggregated data related to price, subscription rate, and plan characteristics, as well as the process by which providers can submit this aggregated data within FCC filing windows and deadlines. The bureau will consider allowing providers to rely on the information prepared for broadband labels to the greatest extent possible.
The new rules require ACP providers to generate a unique identifier for each ACP-supported plan they offer (as all broadband providers must do under new consumer broadband label rules). With support from the Office of Economics and Analytics, the Wireline Competition Bureau will develop guidance concerning when a provider is required to formulate a new unique identifier for an ACP-supported plan.
The bureau will work with the Office of Economics and Analytics and USAC on provider education and training materials to assist with the ACP Transparency Data Collection rules.
2. Affordable Connectivity Program Performance Metrics
When it created the Affordable Connectivity Program, the FCC established three goals for the program: 1) reduce the digital divide for low-income consumers; 2) promote awareness and participation in the program; and 3) ensure efficient and effective program administration. The FCC also established performance metrics and methods to measure progress toward these goals. The information collected through the ACP Transparency Data Collection will help the FCC evaluate the program's efficacy and determine the value that ACP-enrolled households are obtaining from their benefit. Data on the price and characteristics of plans with ACP-enrolled households will help the FCC understand the value that ACP-enrolled households are obtaining from the federal subsidy, including which plan characteristics are covered by the benefit, and whether the plans being subsidized are of adequate quality to engage in telework, telehealth, or remote education.
The FCC believes that understanding broadband adoption by first-time subscribers would help it measure progress toward the goal of narrowing the digital divide for low-income consumers. In this proceeding, the FCC asked the public if the commission should collect information about whether a subscriber is a first-time subscriber to the provider or a first-time subscriber for fixed or mobile broadband, or whether a household was subscribing to multiple broadband services. Industry groups opposed the idea arguing that they do not collect this information as a matter of course, and that it would be a substantial burden to submit this information.
The FCC still recognizes the utility of such information in permitting non-profit organizations, local and state governments, and the commission itself to more effectively target ACP outreach efforts to underserved households and to fulfill the requirements to collect data necessary for determining the program’s progress toward the goal of narrowing the digital divide. But the FCC decided that the ACP Transparency Data Collection might not be the best vehicle for collecting information about first-time users.
Instead, FCC staff have been asked to consider other ways to collect information to determine progress toward the goal of narrowing the digital divide, such as broadband adoption rates for first-time subscribers, and increases in enrollments in areas with low broadband penetration rates. Specifically, the Wireline Competition Bureau—with support from the Office of Economics and Analytics, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, and USAC—will explore possible approaches, such as statistical sampling, or industry or consumer surveys, to collect information about the extent to which ACP subscribers are first-time broadband subscribers, first-time fixed broadband subscribers or are subscribing to multiple broadband services.
The Wireline Competition Bureau—with support from the Office of Economics and Analytics and USAC—will also explore collecting information regarding ACP enrollment through surveys of ACP participating providers, subscribers, and other stakeholders.
3. Publication of ACP Data
Congress requires the FCC to “make data relating to broadband internet access service collected . . . available to the public in a commonly used electronic format without risking the disclosure of personally identifiable information or proprietary information." The FCC plans to make publicly available, aggregated at the state level, non-provider-specific data on the average or median prices of plans in which ACP subscribers are enrolled within designated download speed tiers and data on the number of subscribers of plans within those tiers. The FCC's Office of Economics and Analytics and USAC will make these data available in a downloadable format (e.g., Comma Separated Values file) not more than six months after the submission date.
The FCC directs staff, when making information available to the public, to make sure to guard potentially proprietary and competitive information by not disclosing information that could directly or indirectly identify a specific provider.
The FCC further directs staff to publish:
- data aggregated at the state level and only publish data at lower levels of geographic aggregation if doing so sufficiently protects provider identity;
- average or median prices; and
- such data by speed tiers.
In general, the FCC will "publish as much data as possible consistent with privacy considerations." At a minimum, the Office of Economics and Analytics and USAC must publish aggregated non-provider-specific data on average or median prices of plans within download speed tiers and data on the total number of ACP subscribers within those tiers, on a state-level basis. Aggregated data will also be available to the public by ZIP code.
FCC Seeks More Public Input
In addition to adopting its new rules and delegating work to staff, the FCC is seeking input on:
- the statutory requirement to revise ACP Transparency Data Collection rules;
- the value of subscriber-level data and methods of obtaining and encouraging subscriber consent; and
- whether the FCC should also collect additional data, such as more granular aggregated data, data related to enrollment processes, the digital divide, price, or plan availability or performance.
1. Data Collection Revisions
Congress directs the FCC to revisit the data collection rules within six months. Now the FCC seeks comment on how the ACP data collection rules could be improved, such as by reducing burdens on smaller providers or collecting subscriber-level data, more granular aggregated data, or data related to the digital divide or plan availability. In particular, the FCC seeks comment on how the rules could be revised to verify the accuracy of the data to be collected. How should the FCC track and verify the accuracy of data? Should rule revisions contemplate adding new collection variables to improve or refine the data collected?
2. Subscriber-Level Data
Although the FCC is not requiring providers to collect and submit subscriber-level data at this time, the commission seeks additional comment on the benefits and costs of collecting subscriber-level data. Would subscriber-level data on price and a unique plan identifier be more useful relative to the aggregated data, and, if so, how, why, and to what extent? Would subscriber-level data allow the FCC to better understand and assess service prices and plan characteristics? Are there additional benefits of a subscriber-level collection in meeting the performance goals of the program?
Collecting subscriber-level data, however, means getting subscriber consent, and the FCC seeks additional comment on how consent could be obtained. Should providers be required to obtain or seek consent upon enrolling new subscribers? What about when transferring-in subscribers who are moving the ACP benefit to another provider? Additionally, the FCC seeks comment on obtaining consent from existing ACP households. Should USAC obtain or seek consent from these subscribers? Or is the broadband provider better positioned to obtain consent? The FCC seeks comment on whether consent should be mandatory or optional for subscribers. If consent is mandatory, what would be the likely effect on ACP enrollment for new subscribers and existing subscribers? If consent is optional for subscribers, how would this affect the quantity and quality of the resulting data?
3. Additional Data
The FCC seeks comment on whether aggregated data should be collected or aggregated on a level smaller than ZIP code, such as by county or Census tract, either in addition to or instead of ZIP code. What would be the benefits and costs of collecting data aggregated at these levels? Do providers have the capability to readily aggregate data by county or Census tract?
The FCC believes that information about the ACP enrollment process and customer interactions with provider representatives could help the commission understand how well the program is being administered. So the FCC seeks comment on whether it should collect information about the extent to which subscribers enroll in the program using the assistance of provider representatives. Should the FCC collect data on the type of enrollment interaction—in person, telephonically, or via email or another method? Should the FCC collect this information at the subscriber level or aggregate level?
The FCC also seeks input on whether to collect data related to the digital divide. Should the commission collect information about the extent to which ACP subscribers are new or existing broadband subscribers, or are subscribers to multiple broadband plans (e.g., fixed and mobile)? If the ACP data collection is not the proper venue for such a collection, should the FCC collect the information through statistical sampling, industry or consumer surveys? Would the collection of these data present an opportunity to also collect and assess other useful information, for example, related to digital equity and inclusion?
Information on introductory pricing could assist in understanding the growth of the Affordable Connectivity Program, the number of subscribers who may be subject to upcoming price increases, and whether ACP subscribers are predominantly new. So the FCC seeks comment on whether it should make the collection of these two data points mandatory. Should the FCC collect this information at the subscriber level or aggregate level? Are there other data fields or information related to introductory pricing or set-up or activation fees that the FCC should collect? Is this collection the proper venue for the collection of this information, and if not, where and how should the FCC collect this information? Would the collection of this information help the FCC assess our progress toward digital equity and inclusion?
The FCC seeks comment on whether it should collect any reliability or other quality of service information that may be collected as part of consumer broadband labels.
The FCC also seeks comment on whether it should make mandatory the collection of all-in price, net-rate charged, and the number of subscribers whose monthly net-rate charged is greater than $0. How would all-in price, net-rate charged, or the number of subscribers whose net-rate charge is $0 be helpful for groups engaging in targeted outreach?
The FCC seeks comment on whether we should collect data on additional metrics, including but not limited to low-income plans and connected device offerings. Should the commission collect information about the availability of restricted or low-income-only service plans, or a provider’s connected device offerings?
For more on broadband transparency, see these articles from the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society:
- What the FCC Wants to Know About ACP Service
- Here's How the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Will Make it Easier to Shop for Broadband Service
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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