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'Serious Economic Challenge'

ACP's Future, Spectrum Authority Lapse Likely to Loom Large in House FCC Hearing

The FCC’s administration of its affordable connectivity program and other broadband initiatives won’t be the sole focus of a Wednesday House Communications Subcommittee hearing with commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and other commissioners, but it’s likely to be the item with the most bearing on future policymaking, observers said in interviews. The panel is happening a day before two of the commissioners -- Republican Brendan Carr and Democrat Geoffrey Starks -- appear before the Senate Commerce Committee for a joint confirmation hearing with new FCC nominee Anna Gomez (see 2306150068). The House Communications hearing will begin at 10:30 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn.

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House Communications members “will inevitably talk about” ACP’s future and a potential USF revamp Wednesday, said New Street’s Blair Levin. ACP’s future may be “the single most important policy issue and economic issue” in the communications policy space. “The notion of it going away and 18 million Americans suddenly facing a $30-a-month price increase” for broadband services “is enormously problematic if we’re serious about closing the digital divide,” he said: “The chaos that would ensue,” the potential damage to ISPs’ “brand reputation” and the costs those companies could face would be “a serious economic challenge.”

What’s not clear” is whether “a sufficient number of Republicans are willing to say something to the effect of ‘we favor’” ACP, “‘we want to refund it and here are a couple of clear changes we need in order to do so,’” Levin said. He’s unsure whether lawmakers will talk about either ACP or a USF revamp “in a way that leads one to believe” the “chances for Congress refunding” the programs are or aren't in limbo. House Communications Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and others haven’t committed themselves on further ACP funding (see 2305100073).

Rosenworcel’s written testimony highlights ACP as one of the FCC’s top achievements since she last testified before House Communications. “I strongly support funding” ACP “into the future to help more families get and stay connected to the high-speed internet they need to participate in modern life,” she says: It’s “the largest broadband affordability program in our nation’s history,” but “our current projections indicate that our appropriated funds to continue this program and keep these households connected could run out within a year.”

Commissioner Nathan Simington’s testimony highlights “many waste, fraud, and abuse concerns” about ACP. “If you choose to renew it, there are changes that you could make to help address these issues, like better identity verification and more precise targeting of the program to those who it was designed to serve,” he says. Starks’ testimony briefly cites ACP but doesn’t call for any particular action from Congress. Carr cautions against “wasteful” use of FCC connectivity money. He also praises Congress’ push for “diligent oversight and coordination” among federal agencies’ disparate broadband programs and hails House Commerce for advancing the American Broadband Deployment Act permitting revamp package (HR-3557) in May (see 2305240069).

Levin is also watching to see whether Republicans question Rosenworcel’s launch last week of a Privacy and Data Protection Task Force and her notice of inquiry about how broadband providers use data caps as part of subscriber plans (see 2306160050). Rosenworcel’s testimony mentions both items. “It’s time the FCC took a fresh look” on data caps, she says. “When we need access to the internet, we aren’t thinking about how much data it takes to complete a task, we just know it needs to get done.” The privacy task force “will have input in several ongoing efforts, including modernizing the agency’s data breach rules and cracking down on SIM-swapping fraud,” Rosenworcel says.

Many officials expect House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., to use the hearing to highlight panel work to restore the FCC’s spectrum auction authority, including its May advancement of the Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565) in a bid to prod Senate leaders to act on the issue. “Restoring this authority will provide” the U.S. “with the strongest foundation to compete in a global economy, counter our adversaries’ technology ambitions, and safeguard our national security,” Rosenworcel says: “Restoring the FCC’s auction authority is the first step” in setting “the future of spectrum policy” and when Congress brings back the remit, “let’s think about building a new spectrum pipeline that that can carry us to 6G.”

Carr also urges Congress to resurrect the FCC’s mandate but also notes “there are still several spectrum actions the Commission can take in the very near term while legislation works its way through Congress. And a swift acceleration in FCC action is vital” given expectations the U.S. “will soon face a significant spectrum shortfall,” he says. None of the commissioners refers directly to calls for Congress to provide the FCC with an additional $3.08 billion to fully fund the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program despite uncertain prospects for enacting a spectrum legislative package that aims to cover the rip-and-replace shortfall (see 2306120058). Starks does cite the commission’s “process of implementing rip-and-replace. We must continue to work together to address this ongoing threat and finalize our remediation process.”

Others expect Republicans to use the hearing to criticize the FCC for its handling of the terminated Standard General/Tegna deal, given GOP calls for an Office of Inspector General probe of the matter (see 2305160088). None of the commissioners' statements mentions the issue.