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May 16 Commerce Markup

ACP Supporters See Funding Push Progress in Senate Despite FAA Bill Snub

Backers of stopgap funding for the FCC’s ailing affordable connectivity program and Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program believe they made progress last week toward their goal of firming up the initiatives even as a bid attaching funds to the FAA reauthorization legislation appeared all but dead. Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., emerged from the chamber Thursday night touting commitments from leaders to move forward on allocating the proposed money even as the body voted 88-4 to pass the FAA Reauthorization Act (HR-3935) without funding language he and others sought (see 2405070083).

There was still chatter Thursday that pro-ACP House lawmakers may try to attach stopgap money when that chamber considers HR-3935, the FAA package, this week, lobbyists told us. However, the House likely will face pressure to approve the Senate-passed measure as-is, lobbyists said. ACP Extension Act (HR-6929) lead sponsor Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., sent a letter Thursday with 121 other lawmakers urging congressional leaders to include money for the program in the FAA package (see 2405100071).

There’s a commitment to move in such a way that there will be votes” to allocate more money to ACP and rip and replace, Lujan told reporters Thursday night. ACP funding is set to run out at the end of May. Lujan, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and others spoke on the floor about the issue during the HR-3935 vote. Lujan said he refiled his FAA amendment as a stand-alone bill (S-4317). His proposal would allocate $6 billion for ACP for FY 2024 and $3.08 billion for rip and replace. HR-6929 and Senate companion S-3565 seek $7 billion in stopgap ACP funding (see 2401100056).

Lujan insisted he didn't hold up final FAA floor consideration to secure the ACP/rip-and-replace commitment. He was one of the last senators to leave the floor at the end of the vote on HR-3935, amid discussions about eleventh-hour objections to the upper chamber approving a House-passed one-week extension of the FAA’s mandate (HR-8289) that would allow the House to vote on the longer-term renewal. The Senate later approved HR-8289 by unanimous consent.

Legislative Differences

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., later confirmed Lujan’s announcement that the panel would address ACP funding during a May 16 markup session via her revised Spectrum and National Security Act (S-4207). Also on the docket: the Rural Broadband Protection Act (S-275), Network Equipment Transparency Act (S-690) and Kids Off Social Media Act (S-4213). The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in 253 Russell. Senate Commerce postponed a markup of the three telecom bills earlier this month (see 2405010051).

It’s unclear the extent to which Lujan's proposal would factor into Senate Commerce's consideration of S-4207. Cantwell's bill as currently written includes the same amount of rip-and-replace funding as others have proposed but would allocate $7 billion for ACP in FY24 (see 2404250061). The two proposals include differing plans for using future FCC spectrum auction revenue to offset outlays for telecom projects.

Lujan has some “different ideas” for structuring the spectrum revenue offsets, but “now we’ll put” the Spectrum and National Security Act on the May 16 agenda “and see what we can get everybody to agree on,” Cantwell told us. Her bill proposes that the FCC auction portions of the 12.7-13.25 GHz band before the end of 2027. It also mandates NTIA study repurposing federal spectrum on the 7 GHz, 8 GHz and 37 GHz bands. Lujan’s proposal would mandate the FCC reauction the 197 returned AWS-3 licenses (see 2405080047) and sell other spectrum in its inventory.

Cantwell was noncommittal earlier Thursday about including language from the Lujan proposal that would modify ACP rules, including subsidy eligibility thresholds. The language mirrors parts of a draft plan that a congressional Universal Service Fund revamp working group is considering. Lujan co-leads the group (see 2404170066). “I think we'll need to get with all our colleagues,” especially Commerce members, “and hear from them” on that matter, Cantwell told reporters.

'Tough Cuts'

Lujan said ACP rules changes, like all other parts of his proposal, remain “pertinent regardless" of results from Senate Commerce's May 16 meeting. “I'm still encouraging action on the language, whether it's as an amendment” to the Cantwell package or “as a standalone bill,” he told reporters. If “most, if not all” Senate Democrats support the compromise, then “we are already upon that 60-vote threshold required” to overcome a filibuster. “We're going to keep working with colleagues and see what we can do,” he said.

Lujan amendment co-sponsors Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., support including the ACP changes in a future funding vehicle. “I really want to get the ACP funding done, and I'm open to working with whoever to get it,” Vance told us. “I think that we have 60” senators who “really want to get behind something” to save ACP if that would include rules changes. The proposal remains “a good template for moving forward,” Welch told us. “It gives me some optimism because we got solid support from really high-ranking Republicans” during the FAA amendments fight.

The ACP eligibility changes “are tough cuts,” but most backers know enacting them “means that you can continue to help a large majority of the people” enrolled in the program, said Greg Guice, chief policy officer for pro-affordable connectivity consultancy Vernonburg Group. “Republicans have some good leverage on those eligibility criteria” and Democrats “have done the calculus” that the cuts are acceptable.

Conceding enough on eligibility to move funding along was going to have to happen” given that ACP “is in very bad shape right now,” said Joe Kane, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation director-broadband and spectrum policy. It’s unclear whether that will be enough to get sufficient GOP support in the House as there’s “more significant opposition” to ACP among that chamber’s Republicans.