Thursday, December 16, 2021

Commenters Address Transition from Emergency Broadband Benefit to Affordable Connectivity Program

The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) appropriated $65 billion to broadband-related initiatives. While the $42.5 billion targeting the construction of network infrastructure has received much of the attention, another significant component of the IIJA is the $14.2 billion to be used by the FCC to modify and extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP), a consumer subsidy created in December 2020 by the $900 billion COVID-19 relief and government funding bill. (For more information on the nearly $7 billion in broadband funding contained therein, please see this post to the Free State Foundation's blog.)

Interested parties recently submitted comments on how the Commission can assure a smooth transition, for both consumers and service providers, from the EBBP to the IIJA's Affordable Connectivity Program. That valuable and informed input can only benefit consumers and warrants careful consideration and action by the FCC.

As I described in "The Emergency Broadband Benefit: A Possible Model for Future Lifeline Funding," a February 2021 Perspectives from FSF Scholars, at the end of last year Congress allocated $3.2 billion to a short-term, pandemic-specific subsidy program to be administered by the FCC. Low-income Americans, as well as those experiencing financial hardship due to the ongoing public health crisis, were able to receive (1) a recurring $50 monthly discount on high-speed Internet access service, and (2) a one-time connected-device subsidy up to $100.

The EBBP, by design, was limited in duration: Congress made clear that it would conclude at the earlier of the end of the pandemic (plus six months) or when the money ran out.

The $1.2 trillion IIJA appropriated an additional $14.2 billion to extend those broadband service and device discounts. While the program established by the IIJA in many ways builds upon the EBBP, as initially defined by Congress and subsequently implemented by the FCC, it also made some changes, in particular to eligibility requirements and the amount of the standard monthly service discount. And it gave the program a new name to reflect its longer-term nature: the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

On November 18, 2021, the Wireline Competition Bureau issued a Public Notice soliciting input from interested parties on how best to implement the ACP. A wide range of entities – including broadband providers (such as AT&T Services, Inc., T-MOBILE USA, INC., and Verizon Communications Inc.) and industry trade associations (among others, USTelecom – The Broadband Association, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, and CTIA – The Wireless Association®) – submitted comments by the December 8, 2021, deadline.

Interested parties raised a host of issues, some "big picture," others highly detailed and specific. Below I discuss a few of the topics that seem to have garnered the most attention.

First and foremost, commenters emphasized the importance of policies and procedures that provide for a smooth and orderly transition, for both consumers and providers, from the EBBP to the ACP. Pursuant to the operative text of the IIJA, the EBBP will end, and the ACP will begin, on December 31, 2021. However, a final order will not issue from the FCC until the middle of January 2022.

Broadband providers urged the FCC to afford them reasonably sufficient flexibility as they strive to comply with rules not yet written – and adequate time to make necessary changes once those rules are finalized. For example, multiple broadband providers argued that, in the interim, they should be permitted to continue to determine eligibility according to the existing EBBP rules.

In addition, and as mentioned above, Congress modified the amount of the standard monthly discount. Whereas the EBBP made available $50, the ACP reduced that to $30. From the consumer perspective, commenters highlighted the need to provide meaningful notice of this change so that recipients are not caught off guard financially.

Providers, meanwhile, identified numerous time-consuming to-dos necessitated by this change, including billing-system modifications, website and other marketing material revisions, and customer service representative training. Again, commenters asserted that these steps demand adequate time to complete.

Another change wrought by the IIJA: participating broadband providers "shall allow an eligible household to apply the affordable connectivity benefit to any internet service offering of the participating provider, at the same terms available to households that are not eligible households" (emphasis added).

Commenting broadband service providers raised operational concerns and uncertainties triggered by this vague and overly broad language. As one example, they urged the FCC to clarify that "any internet service offering" does not include grandfathered packages – that is, those no longer actively marketed to existing or potential new customers.

In the interest of effective and efficient administration, these and other concerns identified by commenting parties deserve close consideration and a robust response from the FCC.

The deadline for reply comments is December 28, 2021.