Groups At Odds Over FCC's $3B Internet Fund

By Julia Arciga
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Law360 (January 26, 2021, 3:42 PM EST) -- The Federal Communications Commission is being pulled in opposite directions over how it should distribute the $3.2 billion allocated for emergency broadband deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some constituents pushing for strict vetting of potential recipients and others urging the commission to make it easy for broadband providers to participate.

Some entities — like Incompas, the New York Public Service Commission and Wireless Internet Service Providers Association — urged the FCC to make it as easy as possible for providers to opt-in to give consumers subsidized broadband service during the coronavirus pandemic through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

The NYPSC said a "simplified application and approval process" would "incentivize as many providers as possible to participate" in the program and "expedite funding to eligible households that need this assistance immediately." Similarly, WISPA said the commission should rely on participating providers' existing certifications "under penalty of perjury" instead of having providers submit documentation to opt in.

"Requiring excessive resources and administrative overhead for us to participate will deter participation," the group said.

Incompas also said an easy opt-in process would promote competition among providers in the program, which it said would be key to maximizing the program's benefits.

"Incompas believes that participation by competitors will help this program succeed, and as such, it will be important that the program rules for designating broadband providers be simple, clear and easy to follow," it told the commission. "Any designation process should not be overly burdensome for providers."

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said this was a great opportunity for the FCC to "move away" from the existing, "outdated" Eligible Telecommunications Carrier framework that designates qualified providers who can provide broadband assistance.

"ITIF encourages the inclusion of a broad range of operators ... [and] eliminating the historical red tape associated with the ETC designation process throughout the commission's subsidy programs is an important step in broadening participation in these programs," the group wrote.

On the other hand, the Michigan Public Service Commission and others told the commission that providers must be properly verified before being included in the program. The MPSC specifically warned against the commission tossing out the ETC process during this time.

"By granting automatic approval and bypassing the ETC process for these non-ETCs, the process proposed by the FCC creates concerns about potential waste, fraud, and abuse by providers participating in this important broadband program," the MPSC wrote.

Additionally, the Open Technology Institute and New America said vetting processes are needed for consumers who seek the program's benefits — especially in the wake of the FCC's National Verifier system for subsidy benefits running into delays and not being active in all 50 states.

The OTI called for the commission to bolster its consumer vetting process by establishing "data-matching agreements" with "existing federal and state enrollment systems" for benefits like Pell Grants, the National School Lunch Program, and unemployment benefits.

"These agreements can give the National Verifier a direct connection to those systems that automates and expedites the application process," OTI wrote.

By using the Pell Grant verification process as part of its consumer vetting, the FCC would be able to accurately give low-income college students the help they need in obtaining broadband, New America said.

"We believe the above-proposed options for verification will ensure accuracy in the awarding of broadband subsidies; avert the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse among applicants; and provide critical benefits to a set of Americans very much in need of affordable access to stable broadband," the group wrote.

The commission put out a call for interested parties to comment on how it should use the $3.2 billion earlier this month, after Congress allocated the agency the funds to help subsidize internet service for low-income households as part of the latest stimulus package. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is designed to reimburse service providers who offer discounted internet to eligible households during the pandemic.

Participating providers will knock up to $50 per month off the going rate for internet service — up to $75 a month for customers on tribal lands, the commission said at the time. Companies can also take $50 per month off the cost of any associate equipment, and the government will reimburse them.

If the companies want, they'll also be able to provide customers with a smartphone, laptop or tablet for the duration of the pandemic and can get up to $100 back "if the charge to the eligible household for that device is more than $10.00 but less than $50.00," the commission said.

--Additional reporting by Nadia Dreid. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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