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ACP, Rip-and-Replace Backers Press Funding Case After FY24 Minibus Snub

Senate Commerce Committee Democrats and Republicans who back allocating an additional $3.08 billion for the FCC’s Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program and stopgap funding for the commission’s ailing affordable connectivity program used a Thursday spectrum-focused hearing (see 2403210063) to vent about the Hill's failure thus far to address either priority. The Further Consolidated Appropriations Act FY 2024 minibus spending bill, which congressional leaders released early Thursday morning as an amendment to legislative vehicle HR-2882, as expected (see 2403190062) includes neither ACP nor rip-and-replace funding.

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Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., was among those who noted the lack of Capitol Hill action on ACP funding. He cited 25 groups that called for congressional renewal of the FCC’s spectrum auction authority “and use [of] $7 billion of the projected revenue” to fund ACP. Lujan was referencing a proposal from Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for a five-year renewal of the FCC’s lapsed spectrum auction authority sans language authorizing sales of specific bands that the Congressional Budget Office scored at $12 billion-$15 billion (see 2403140066), one telecom lobbyist said. Cantwell’s proposal would in part let Congress initiate a “bridge” loan advancing the FCC money to keep ACP running for a year, the lobbyist said.

Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also urged Cantwell to use a spectrum legislative package to fund ACP through the end of 2024. He cited his ACP Extension Act (HR-6929/S-3565), which proposes $7 billion for the program in FY24 (see 2401100056). HR-6929 lead sponsor Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., led a Wednesday letter with more than 150 other lawmakers urging congressional leaders to “take action in the immediate future to prevent a lapse in funding that would result in a wind-down of the program. At a time when broadband accessibility is more important than ever, we cannot afford to lose the progress we have made in our efforts to bridge the digital divide.”

I know there are enormous demands whenever there's any money that may be available,” but spectrum auction legislation is one of the only vehicles that may “be able to allow us to continue this program,” Welch said Thursday. He is open to “reforms that make [ACP] more efficient,” as some Republicans seek, if that will help keep it going. ACP participants “who are purely dependent on [the subsidy] to maintain connectivity are going to fall off” if it winds down this spring as currently expected, Welch said: “Surveys have indicated they really will. And will they get back on? Probably not. So this is a real setback … especially in rural America.”

The House Republican Study Committee’s (RSC) proposed FY 2025 budget, released Wednesday night, calls for restoring the FCC’s auction mandate, but it would allow ACP to “sunset.” RSC “stands against corporate welfare and government handouts that disincentivize prosperity,” the budget said. ACP in theory “was intended to help low-income households afford” broadband, but “private industry captures some of the benefits while passing on higher prices to all consumers.”

Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., were among several Senate Commerce members raising concerns about the rip-and-replace funding gap. “Removing high-risk Chinese equipment from our communication networks should be paramount to this committee's work,” Fischer said. “Congress cannot simply watch as networks go dark.” She and Hickenlooper referenced their Our Networks Act (HR-6189/S-1245), which would reallocate 3% of unspent and unobligated funding from the FY 2021 appropriations omnibus, the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and other COVID-19 aid packages to fund rip and replace's deficit (see 2304210069). The measure was among proposals lawmakers successfully attempted to attach to the FY24 minibus (see 2403150063).

Senate Communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., countered that “spectrum decisions are often driven by the amount of proceeds that a particular bill might raise” rather than ensuring sound policy decisions, “which concerns” the lawmaker. “I've always focused on getting the policy right, not on how much money the bill would raise.”

“Auctions are all about getting spectrum to commercial users as quickly and expeditiously as possible,” said Hudson Institute Center for the Economics of the Internet Director Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican former FCC commissioner. “Spectrum policy shouldn't be focused on how much we can get to some specific activity. Congress does that through the appropriations committee. And that should be the way it should operate.”

The minibus allocates almost $390.2 million to the FCC for FY24, in between proposals the House and Senate Appropriations committees advanced in July (see 2307130069). The legislation proposes $425.7 million for the FTC, which is closer to Senate Appropriations’ plan than the House panel's level. In addition, it includes $535 million for CPB in FY 2026, turning back House Appropriations Republicans' attempt to end that entity's advance funding (see 2307140069).

We’re very pleased with the level funding for [CPB] especially given where we started with the House,” said America’s Public Television Stations CEO Patrick Butler in a statement. RSC again proposed eliminating CPB funding. “A free society should not have government-supported media outlets, especially ones that so often carry water for the left’s agenda,” RSC said.