ISPs Prepare for Flood of Broadband Billions

person using laptop
Cable providers want equal access to the federal government’s $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission is getting a lot of help in deciding how to spend the $3.2 billion — and potentially much more — set aside by Congress in a December COVID-19 relief bill for an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund (EBB), as well as new pandemic-driven investment being teed up.

The FCC has been seeking input from stakeholders, since it was only given 60 days from when the bill became law at year-end to come up with rules and regulations to implement the fund.

Congress is requiring the agency to make all that money available for an internet service available at a $50-per-household discount ($75 on tribal lands).

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Not surprisingly, internet service providers are focused on making sure they can access as much of that money as possible. That means leveling the playing field with current participants in the FCC’s Lifeline low-income subsidy, to which the new congressional money is tied. Ninety percent of Lifeline participants are wireless carriers, NCTA–The Internet & Television Association VP and general counsel Steve Morris told the FCC at a roundtable on the new subsidy.

In virtual meetings with FCC staffers, ACA Connects, the NCTA, internet and competitive networks trade group INCOMPAS and WISPA (the wireless internet-service providers association) presented a united front in calling for flexible rules regarding “the specific service offerings that are available for the EBB program, the categories of households that may participate, and the verification processes that providers will use to qualify households.”

For its part, NCTA said the money should be available to as wide a pool of consumers as possible. It urged the FCC to make sure all providers, including broadband cable operators that have not been Lifeline participants, have an equal shot at the money, rather than giving current Lifeline participants a head start, and by minimizing administrative and implementation “burdens.”

One way that can happen, NCTA said, is by essentially preapproving the vast majority of NCTA members who took the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge via their own existing low-income programs or launching new ones.

NCTA argues that for the new EBB program, the FCC should grant “automatic approval of an application for participation by a broadband provider with a pre-existing program,” such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials, rather than participating in Lifeline. The presumption is the low-cost broadband program’s verification process “qualifies as sufficient to avoid waste,
fraud and abuse,” which the FCC can review under objective standards to make sure that is the case.

Another cable broadband ask is that the FCC make sure participants can access a full list of participating providers since the subsidy can only be used for one provider, Comcast Essentials administrator Trinity Thorpe-Lubneuski told the FCC at the roundtable.

Commenters should likely be readying some of the same arguments. 

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has said he will reintroduce a bill that would spend $100 billion to extend internet service to everyone in the country, and has pushed the White House to make that bill a part of any infrastructure package. 

If the most recent COVID-19 relief bill passes as currently written, the commission will have billions more in broadband dollars to give out, targeted to schools and libraries.

One thing is clear: The broadband subsidy spigot appears to be opening wide. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.