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Carr Seeks FCC Apple Probe

Davidson, Gomez Forecast Damage for Economy and BEAD Should ACP Lapse

NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson and FCC Commissioner Anna Gomez used speaking slots at the State of the Net conference Monday to press Congress to allocate additional money for the commission’s affordable connectivity program. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, also at the conference, urged that the commission investigate Apple’s purported blocking of cross-platform messaging service Beeper Mini “to see if it complies” with the agency’s Part 14 accessibility rules under the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.

We’re hopeful that Congress will be able to act” before ACP’s initial $14.2 billion in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act expires this spring, Davidson said. He noted President Joe Biden requested an additional $6 billion in his October domestic supplemental appropriations request, so “it’s a high priority for this administration” (see 2310250075). A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., and Senate Agriculture Rural Development Subcommittee Chairman Peter Welch, D-Vt., filed the ACP Extension Act (HR-6929/S-3565) in January to infuse $7 billion into the program for FY 2024 (see 2401100056). However, Senate Communications Subcommittee ranking member John Thune of South Dakota and other Republicans are skeptical about stopgap funding for ACP without accompanying changes in the program’s administration (see 2312210074).

It “would be very damaging” if Congress allowed ACP to lapse once the initial $14.2 billion in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act expires this spring, Davidson said. Without ACP, NTIA would “have a real problem” meeting the $42.5 billion broadband equity, access and deployment program’s “goals of reaching everybody and building out networks for everybody in America.” ACP “has been a key part of making sure that we can deploy those networks well,” he said: “Knowing that there's a customer base available and that people are going to participate … makes it more attractive.”

Gomez also cited ACP’s symbiotic effect on BEAD as she advocated for stopgap funding. “Without ACP and a sustainable customer base, fewer consumers in the most hard to reach areas of the country will be connected by this once-in-a-generation investment in broadband,” she said. “Put simply, without ACP our dollars will not go as far and we will fail to maximize the benefits of this investment.”

If ACP ends, it will slow our country's economic growth,” Gomez said. “Our economy relies on many different types of innovators, small entrepreneurs, and business owners who depend on connectivity to develop their skills.” Its expiration will also make it “harder for businesses to find qualified applicants” if ACP participants aren’t able to apply for work online, she said: Conversely, providing stopgap funding will “ensure the long-term success of ACP as a strategic investment in the economic stability and competitiveness of our nation.” In addition, Gomez suggested ACP’s expiration would “lead to increases in government spending,” in part because telehealth services would be inaccessible to Medicaid recipients.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., believes lawmakers have “really done nothing” since the beginning of this Congress, but “I am optimistic” that we will fund ACP because “most of the people” the program serves live in Republican districts, particularly in rural areas. “I think my friends on the other side are going to join with us to make sure that we extend” the program’s life, he said.

Carr called Apple’s disabling of Beeper Mini’s messaging technology just the latest example of the company “creating a walled garden that is having very anti-competitive impacts on the telecom space in adjacent spaces.” There could be “potentially negative consequences” if Apple “perpetuates a world in which it treats its own proprietary technologies one way and degrades the performance” of competitors, he said. The Tech Oversight Project and 15 other groups urged DOJ in December to file an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, in part citing blocking of Beeper Mini’s technology, which enables non-iPhone users’ text messages to show up as more secure “blue bubble” messages rather than regular SMS “green bubble” messages (see 2312210039).

Apple is “degrading” text messages and photos from non-iPhone users, making it difficult for "people with low vision or difficulty with seeing from picking up those messages,” Carr said. Beeper Mini’s technology enabled direct communication between iPhone and non-iPhone users, which “promoted accessibility and usability by people with disabilities.” Apple’s decision to “disable” that functionality may have violated Part 14 provisions 14.20 and 14.21, which in part say “covered providers … shall not install network features, functions or capabilities that impede accessibility and usability,” he said: DOJ and the FTC should also probe Apple’s actions and seek “structural remedies.”