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FCC Won't Make Broadcasters Pay Share of Broadband Mapping

A pile of money
(Image credit: Chris Clor via Getty Images)

In a victory for local broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission has decided not to make stations shoulder some of the costs of the agency’s congressional mandate to collect better data on broadband, but, for now, it won't make Big Tech pay a user fee for the benefit tech companies receive from unlicensed spectrum or FCC-administered broadband subsidies.

White the FCC sought more input on a Big Tech fee, it raised some issues that signaled that would be a hard hill to climb.

That came in the FCC's order — plus accompanying notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) — setting the regulatory fees it charges the various communications services it oversees.

Also Read: NAB's Gordon Smith Urges FCC to Reverse User Fee Hike

The National Association of Broadcasters, joined by all the state broadcast associations, had pushed back hard on the FCC's proposal to include broadcasters in those who would have to help cover the $33 million Congress told the FCC to spend from its 2021 fee collection to cover the costs of implementing the Broadband DATA Act.

They said that the 5% to 15% fee increase the FCC was proposing was in part due to the regulator having to cover that $33 million earmark, since the FCC was also predicting its expenses would only be going up by 5%.

The FCC supports its ongoing operations by user fees and auction proceeds.

In setting the 2021 fees, the FCC said that it had decided to "adjust" that approach given the unusual circumstances of the one-time $33 million earmark.

The NAB had argued that the $33 million should not be considered an overhead [indirect] cost defrayed over all the communications services because they pertained only to certain of those services and only some of the FCC's core bureaus, i.e. broadband providers.

The FCC said it still considered it an indirect cost, but that “given the one-time nature and magnitude of the earmark, the statutory text, the legislative history, and the record in this proceeding, we exclude one group of regulatees — broadcasters or ‘Media Services’ licensees — from their share of these indirect costs.”

The NAB praised the course change.

“NAB greatly appreciates the FCC’s efforts to revise its original regulatory fee proposal that would have required local radio and television broadcasters to subsidize unrelated work at the Commission,” senior VP Ann Marie Cumming said. “The change is not only the right outcome, but critical to the many broadcasters’ ongoing service to their local communities.”

The NAB had also asked the FCC to make Big Tech companies pay user fees since they derive great benefit from unlicensed spectrum.

Also Read: House Bill Would Make Streamers Pay into Broadband Subsidy Fund

The FCC did not do so, but in a separate NPRM, it sought input on how it might do so, asking the following (while signaling some issues that would have to be addressed, like the impact on a multitude of consumer tech companies): “What would be the proposed methodology for assessing regulatory fees on unlicensed spectrum users? We note that unlicensed spectrum users include a significant number of equipment manufacturers, such as appliance and other home goods equipment, many of which neither apply for nor require authorization by the Commission. Commenters should also explain, to the extent they advocate imposition of regulatory fees on either a subset of users or certain entities benefitting from such use, how to define any new fee category and how to calculate and assess such fees on an annual basis. Alternatively, should the Commission assess regulatory fees on large technology companies based
on a different basis, such as any advantages they receive because of the Commission’s universal service or other activities?”

The FCC oversees a Universal Service Fund (USF) that provides billions of dollars in subsidies for broadband services, and is also overseeing implementation of the Biden Administration's billions of dollars in COVID-19-related broadband subsidies and efforts outside the USF to close the digital divide.

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.