Charter Communications, whose Spectrum cable brand dominates Ohio’s wireline Internet market, now accounts for more than half of all Ohio households participating in the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and about a quarter of all ACP participants nationwide.
Charter’s outsized role in the ACP, which provides $30 monthly Federal Internet subsidies to households below 200% of the Federal poverty threshold (and some others, like Pell grantees), means the company is likely to collect between $1.5 and $2 billion in consumer subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission this year.
According to data at USASPENDING.gov, “the official open data source of federal spending information”, the Federal Communications Commission’s monthly payment obligations to Internet providers for ACP discounts to Ohio customers included $12,950,196 for Charter claims submitted in March, $13,558,328 for Charter claims submitted in April and $14,088,697 for the company’s May claims. The maximum monthly ACP discount per household is $30 per month. Charter’s claims represent $30 discounts for at least 431,673 Ohio households in March, 451,944 in April and 469,623 in May.
Each of these monthly totals equals more than half of the the FCC’s reported ACP enrollment in the state at the beginning of the month.
No other wireline or wireless Internet provider comes close to Charter’s dominant role in the ACP in Ohio. The next biggest Ohio ACP players are Q Link and TracFone, two Lifeline mobile phone providers which heavily recruit customers to use their ACP eligibility to add data to their phone plans; each had between 50,000 and 60,000 ACP subscribers in March and April — between 6% and 7% of the state’s ACP enrollees — based on their FCC claims for those months. (TracFone is a Verizon subsidiary). T-Mobile’s subsidiary Assurance Wireless claimed just under 5%; another Lifeline-targeted mobile provider, Sage/TruConnect, accounted for about 3%. The five wireline ISPs other than Charter with the biggest Ohio ACP claims for March and April — AT&T, Buckeye Cable, Cox, Windstream and Cogeco (the former Wide Open West) — were apparently serving only about 5% of the state’s enrollees, in total.
Charter Spectrum operates in more than forty states, including California, New York and Texas, but isn’t as dominant a provider in many markets as it is in Ohio. Reflecting this reality, Charter’s national share of ACP subscribers in recent months seems to be about 25%, or about 4.5 million of the program’s 18 million-plus subscribers.
This makes Charter the nation’s biggest ACP provider by far. Comcast, still the nation’s biggest residential ISP (though Charter is close behind), appears to have only about a million ACP subscribers based on its recent USASPENDING.gov data. The biggest ACP mobile providers, such as Q Link, Tracfone and Assurance, have similar numbers.
Why are Charter’s ACP enrollment numbers so high compared to the rest of the industry? We don’t know for sure, but here’s our impression: Far more than any of its peers — wireline cable and telco incumbents with big, well-established customer bases — Charter has made a business strategy out of getting every possible existing customer to sign up for ACP.
As a result, ACP subscribers now account for at least 15% of the company’s residential Internet customers, with the percentage continuing to increase. It’s likely that most of these ACP signups were already Spectrum subscribers, paying monthly bills of $80-$85 or more. ACP gives Charter a way to reduce those bills to a more competitive $50 or so, with the government writing a check for the difference… thus helping the company hold on to customers who might otherwise be tempted by its proliferating fiber and fixed-wireless competitors.
Among other tactics, Charter has conducted an aggressive, repetitive email campaign touting ACP to its existing customers, whether or not it has reason to think those customers are eligible for the program. We know this because the author, a long-time Spectrum customer, has been receiving those emails. (No, I’m not eligible for ACP, and Charter has no reason to think otherwise.) Here are a couple of recent examples — click to enlarge.
Promotions like these might be one reason for the FCC’s recent interest in getting Charter to move from an in-house “alternative verification” system for determining ACP eligibility, over to the FCC/USAC standard verification tools.