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Ex-FCC Chairs Push NG-911 Funds

Pallone Seeks ACP Stopgap Funds in FY24 Appropriations Omnibus

House Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Wednesday he and other supporters of the FCC’s affordable connectivity program are seeking stopgap funding for an FY 2024 omnibus appropriations package in a bid to keep the endangered initiative running. Meanwhile, ex-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and eight other former commission heads said congressional leaders should “act swiftly” and appropriate up to $15 billion for next-generation 911 tech upgrades. President Joe Biden last year sought $6 billion in stopgap ACP money and $3.08 billion to fully fund the FCC’s Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program as part of a supplemental appropriations request but didn’t mention NG-911 (see 2310250075).

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We’ll attach” ACP funding “to anything” that has a chance of getting approved in the closely divided Congress, Pallone said during a webcast news conference in Red Bank, New Jersey. He, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and other officials specifically cited the ACP Extension Act (HR-6929/S-3565), which proposes injecting the program with $7 billion for FY 2024 (see 2401100056). “We’re hoping we don’t get another continuing resolution” to extend FY 2023 funding levels past early March, Pallone said. Instead, he prefers reaching a deal on an omnibus appropriations package that includes ACP money, Pallone said. “If we can’t, we’ll try to get an emergency appropriation” or another vehicle “because we don’t want this program to expire.” ACP is forecast to run out of funding in April.

An ACP wind-down is “going to be very detrimental to all these people that need internet access” and rely on the program’s $30 subsidy, Pallone added. He emphasized bipartisan backing for HR-6929/S-3565 but blamed Republicans for Congress’ failure to allocate more money for ACP. “The Democrats, including the Biden administration, are all very supportive,” he said: “The problem is we haven't been able to get the Republicans in the House to support this.” GOP leaders on the House and Senate Commerce committees are skeptical about allocating more money for ACP without simultaneously revamping the program’s rules and administration (see 2312210074).

We built the largest broadband affordability initiative in our nation's history” in ACP, Rosenworcel said. “And the way I see it is we've come just way too far now to go back. We saw what the digital divide looked like. We don't have to go back to those days.” New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman, NAACP New Jersey State Conference First Vice President Bruce Morgan and AARP New Jersey State Director Chris Widelo also backed additional ACP money during the news conference.

Communications policy lobbyists we spoke with continue to see little chance of additional ACP money making it into a FY24 spending package despite additional publicity Pallone and other advocates have given it in recent weeks (see 2402150068). GOP leaders in both chambers, but particularly in the House, have “no interest in” allocating more money to the initiative because they perceive it as a “Biden program” and don’t want to hand the administration a win on one of its priorities ahead of the November presidential election, one telecom lobbyist said. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., also faces rising pressure from his party’s most conservative bloc to avoid agreeing to any further CRs, which makes it likely a government shutdown will happen when the existing appropriations extensions expire March 1 and 8, lobbyists said.

States, tribal communities, and local 9-1-1 authorities do not have the estimated $15 billion needed to fully implement NG9-1-1,” Pai and eight other former FCC chairs wrote in a letter to Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the chambers’ minority leaders. “In fact, they face a double-bind in this regard as they must spend scarce funds maintaining legacy 9-1-1 systems until NG9-1-1 is fully deployed and operational.” The ex-chairs cited the push to use some future spectrum auction revenue for NG-911 or repurposing “unspent COVID-era funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or similar vehicles” for the tech upgrades. The House Commerce-cleared Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act (HR-3565) would allocate up to $14.8 billion in future proceeds to fund NG-911 (see 2305240069).

Whatever the funding source, the need is urgent and the time to act is now,” the former chairs wrote. “Today, there is a national consensus that every American deserves access to modern communications technologies, such as broadband. We applaud this development and believe that nationwide NG9-1-1 is the public safety linchpin of this renewed commitment to universal service.” It’s “a bipartisan issue that all of America’s leaders should fully support,” they added. Six of the former FCC chairs served under Democratic presidents, including Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler. The two other GOP ex-chairmen signing the letter are Richard Wiley, who served during the Gerald Ford administration, and Dennis Patrick, who served under the Reagan administration.