In addition to funding the build of new networks, the Biden administration's $65 billion broadband bill also reserves $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP): a monthly broadband subsidy for low-income households in the US, to be overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The ACP is intended to be an improvement on, and longer-term version of, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the eligible public's sake, the most significant difference between the two programs is the subsidy amount: While the EBB covered up to $50/month for broadband, the new program brings that monthly subsidy to $30 monthly. (It remains at $75 for households on tribal land.)
Various other program rules are still to be settled by the FCC. In a public notice on November 18, 2021, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau issued a request for comment on the implementation of the ACP, which were due by December 8.
With 110 public responses filed, here's where the industry is still hoping to influence the final outcome.
The need for speed requirements
One issue up for debate is whether minimum speeds should be required for eligible plans. Viasat, a satellite broadband provider, said no in its public comments. Viasat urged the commission to "continue to define covered services and equipment in a technology-neutral manner that gives eligible households flexibility to choose supported offerings that meet their particular needs," as is the case with the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
"For similar reasons, the Commission should continue its prior decision not to impose minimum service standards that would artificially limit program participation, service availability, and consumer choice – and thereby make broadband service less affordable and accessible," wrote Viasat.
T-Mobile made a similar request in its comments, where it urged the FCC to "promote widespread participation and efficient delivery of ACP benefits" by "declining to adopt any minimum service standards, consistent with the EBB Program."
That sentiment isn't shared by all. Network equipment provider Adtran filed comments on the minimum speed standards question with "a resounding YES."
Acknowledging that minimum standards weren't adopted for the EBB, Adtran said that was due to its temporary nature: "in reaching that decision, the Commission indicated that it was doing so because the EBB Program was a temporary, emergency measure. The Affordable Connectivity Program, in contrast, is not limited to the duration of the COVID pandemic, and is funded in an amount of $14.2 billion, which is expected to sustain the program for many years."
The non-profit organization Benton Institute for Broadband & Society also filed supportive comments for requiring minimum speeds. "The [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] IIJA invests over $42 billion in the deployment of broadband networks capable of at least 100/20 speeds. Moreover, operators of these networks will be required to offer low-cost broadband service options. Clearly Congress intends for everyone in the U.S. to have access to affordable, high-speed broadband of at least 100/20 speeds. The participants in the ACP deserve no less," wrote Benton. It adds that the subsidy should not cover anything less than the current federal standard for broadband of 25/3 Mbit/s. "The Commission's rules should not allow ACP discounts for service that would otherwise qualify a location as 'unserved'."
A key change the IIJA made regarding the new subsidy is that service providers must apply it to "any internet service offering of the participating provider." This comes after some ISPs were accused of requiring EBB-eligible customers to re-enroll in different, pricier plans that may have left them with higher monthly bills later, once the EBB subsidy expired.
In its public notice, the FCC asked for comment on "whether 'any internet offering' should include legacy or grandfathered plans or whether it only includes current offerings of a provider to new customers."
AT&T said it thinks not, writing that "participating providers should only be required to offer ACP on generally available actively sold plans, with the option to include grandfathered plans."
Verizon made a similar request: "Because established providers may have many thousands of legacy service offerings, it would be a substantial task for providers to identify all legacy service offerings, determine all of the possible rate and discount combinations, and make the billing system changes necessary to correctly apply the ACP discount to all legacy services."
The company also asked for additional leniency during the 60-day transition period: "Before the April 1st target date, the Commission should give substantial flexibility to providers that elect to participate in the ACP. It should permit service providers to participate in the ACP as long as they offer the ACP benefit to new enrollees on at least one service offering, consistent with the EBB rules," wrote Verizon.
Taking a different stance, the local broadband advocacy group Next Century Cities wrote in its filing that "ACP providers should be restricted from requiring recipients to change plans or to choose a specific plan before they are allowed to apply their benefit. If either of these practices occur, they should be considered inappropriate upselling or downselling."
The ACP officially goes into effect on December 31, 2021, with a 60-day transition period from the EBB, according to the infrastructure bill. The FCC's final responses to public comments on the program rules are due by December 28, 2021.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.
(Homepage image source: B Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo)