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Thune Backs OIG Audit Report

FCC Moving Forward With ACP Enrollment Freeze Feb. 8: Rosenworcel

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel confirmed to congressional leaders Thursday that the Wireline Bureau will move forward with freezing new affordable connectivity program enrollments Feb. 8 amid the continued push to provide the program stopgap funding to keep it running once its original $14.2 billion allocation runs out in April (see 2401250075). Senate Communications Subcommittee ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., is beginning to cite a recent FCC Office of Inspector General report on its audit of ACP’s 2022 performance (see 2401300090) as vindicating Republicans’ misgivings about the program, which some lobbyists believe may complicate those funding efforts.

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The ACP enrollment freeze “is necessary to slow the depletion of the remaining funding and reduce volatility in the program,” Rosenworcel said in letters to Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., those panels’ ranking members and the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Financial Services subcommittees. “This step will also stabilize the number of households affected by the end of the ACP and reduce consumer confusion. Following the enrollment freeze, the Commission will finalize its projection of the end date of the ACP.”

Participating ISPs have sent ACP subscribers “the first notice about the end of the program and the potential impact on their bills,” Rosenworcel said. “As the wind down proceeds, households enrolled in the ACP will receive additional written notices from providers, as well as the Universal Service Administrative Company, with more detail about the end of the ACP and impact on their bill when the program ceases.” She cited pro-ACP lawmakers’ filing of the ACP Extension Act (HR-6929/S-3565) in January to infuse $7 billion into the program for FY24 (see 2401100056) and noted that initiative’s shutdown means participating households “will lose an important benefit and are at risk of losing the internet service they rely on for work, school, health care and more.”

Thune told us he agrees with the FCC OIG’s audit report, which found the commission has made “significant progress” in its handling ACP during 2022 but needs to make “improvements” in measuring and providing public transparency on grant recipients’ spending of program money. The FCC “partially” concurred with the OIG’s findings. The commission raised concerns about “some audit statements” and some of the methodology that Kearney & Company, which conducted the audit on OIG’s behalf, used to determine some participating ISPs “could not substantiate” their reimbursement claims.

OIG said the FCC “established program goals and performance measures” for ACP but “the performance results were not assessed with specific performance indicators and quarterly milestones for the period under audit.” The FCC “established a process for consumers to file” ACP-related complaints “and for participating providers to inform subscribers of how to file a complaint; however, the FCC did not publish any consumer complaint reports,” OIG said. The commission conducted outreach to promote ACP, but “the methods of outreach, other than grants, were not designed to gather information used to determine effectiveness and were employed prior to FCC establishing monitoring baselines for” the program.

There are a lot of allegations about fraud in the program,” so lawmakers need to focus on “trying to root some of those things out,” Thune told us. Congress needs to “get the program working in the way it was intended, to help the people who need the help without it being abused.” He and other Republicans were already citing concerns about ACP’s administration as a reason to be leery about giving the program more money absent making changes to its structure and rules (see 2312210074).

Cantwell told us she’s still reviewing the FCC OIG’s audit results but emphasized that the push to keep participating subscribers “connected at a critical moment” needs to happen separately from deliberations about “how you make improvements” to ACP, which has become entangled in a push for a USF revamp (see 2310260065). “Congress needs to be certain that the FCC is ensuring that carriers are complying with” ACP rules, Cantwell said in a separate statement. “This is really important -- a lot of people rely on ACP to get the high-speed broadband access they need to participate in the broadband economy.”

The pro-ACP Affordable Broadband Campaign said Thursday its supporters made more than 281,000 emails, call and tweets to Congress since Jan. 25 urging lawmakers to appropriate stopgap funding for the program. Competitive Carriers Association members also urged lawmakers in favor of ACP funding during a series of Wednesday meetings. House Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and lead HR-6929 sponsor Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., cited the need for additional ACP funding during a Wednesday Communications Subcommittee hearing (see 2401300062) as an issue interconnected with broader concerns about the shift of sports programming to streaming services.