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Law360 (May 28, 2021, 5:21 PM EDT) -- Policy requests heated up at the Federal Communications Commission during the month of April as lobbyists presented dueling perspectives on whether Verizon should be allowed to acquire prepaid mobile brand TracFone and offered input on how a COVID-19 relief program for student connectivity should shape up.
According to four weeks of records, lobbyists submitted 205 ex parte filings, which are disclosures that parties advocating at the commission must file to detail conversations and meetings with commissioners and staff.
Here's a look at the top groups that lobbied the FCC from April 1 to 30 and a sampling of what they discussed.
Mobile trade group CTIA topped the charts for the month of April, posting nine ex parte filings that included requests for tweaks to the forthcoming Emergency Connectivity Fund and changes to the FCC's rules governing ownership filing obligations.
The FCC's Emergency Connectivity Fund will allow schools and libraries to tap into $7.17 billion in funds designated by Congress to help students get and stay online during the coronavirus pandemic.
Schools and libraries can apply for funding to cover prospective connectivity programs first, and any remaining money will then go toward helping the institutions cover expenses they've already incurred during the pandemic. The FCC has said institutions may begin applying for the funding sometime in June.
When deciding how institutions should be able to spend the funds, CTIA urged the FCC to "recognize that schools and libraries are relying extensively on mobile wireless broadband services and equipment to support remote learning today and that they will need to continue to do so to close the homework gap," referring to the situation in which some students fall behind because they live in areas that lack connectivity, their families can't afford broadband or their local libraries are closed
Although the wireless industry lobbied the FCC to include mobile phones on the list of connected devices eligible for reimbursement, the agency ultimately declined to do so, saying that smartphones don't offer "the full functionality students, school staff, and library patrons need to perform necessary remote learning activities."
Despite the mobile-phone exclusion, CTIA said in a May 10 statement that the program will still help "schools close the homework gap with robust mobile wireless services."
CTIA also signal-boosted a petition from last year to relax the so-called pro forma rules that generate large volumes of paperwork triggered by minor business changes, such as when a company owner switches from a corporation to a limited liability company.
Along with USTelecom, the group pointed out "unanimous support in the record for the petition's proposed reforms" and asserted that the simplification would "greatly benefit a diverse range of filers, Commission staff, and the public."
Wireless provider Verizon was the second most active lobbyist at the agency last month, logging a total of eight filings that similarly reflected a focus on the details of the Emergency Connectivity Fund, as well as the company's proposed acquisition of prepaid wireless provider TracFone.
Verizon is attempting to convince the FCC that the $6.9 billion acquisition, unveiled last September, will actually create better offers for prepaid mobile plans, countering a narrative that it will further collapse a market that generally caters to low-income consumers.
The deal would provide Verizon with a business that bills itself as the largest reseller of wireless services in the U.S., with about 21 million subscribers and a network of more than 90,000 retail locations across the nation, according to the companies. As a supplier of prepaid wireless plans, TracFone Wireless Inc. already has existing wholesale agreements with Verizon that power mobile service for more than 13 million TracFone subscribers.
"While Verizon today serves only a marginal share of the prepaid segment at retail, the transaction will make a combined Verizon/TracFone a stronger competitor for prepaid customers against the flanker brands, T-Mobile's Metro and AT&T's Cricket, as well as DISH's Boost," Verizon told the FCC.
As for the Emergency Connectivity Fund framework, Verizon encouraged the FCC to leave the reimbursement rules open-ended and let schools and libraries decide how best to spend the funds.
"Such requirements are unnecessary because the combination of a highly competitive market for remote learning services, per-school ECF support budgets, and state and local procurement requirements will ensure that schools' reimbursement requests are reasonable," Verizon wrote.
It also said the FCC should block schools from spending the funds on building out new networks, which the FCC agreed to except in very limited circumstances.
Communications Workers of America
Labor group Communications Workers of America was the third most active lobbyist at the FCC during April, filing seven ex parte documents that mostly opposed Verizon's proposed TracFone acquisition.
According to CWA, which represents Verizon employees, the FCC should require Verizon to be more transparent about how the TracFone buy could affect low-income customers who rely on prepaid services that are often subsidized by the FCC's Lifeline program.
If the FCC is thinking about allowing the deal to go forward, it should "impose conditions that will protect Lifeline customers and address potential anticompetitive harms to the wireless market," the union said.
The group also asked the FCC to reconsider a series of Trump-era policies that restrained how local governments are allowed to deal with the rollout of 5G small-cell infrastructure.
"We urge the Commission to revisit these preemptive decisions, particularly the Commission's 2018 small cell orders, which have limited local governments' ability to meet the communications needs of their communities at a time when those needs have become more important than ever," CWA said.
--Editing by Alanna Weissman. Editing by Michael Watanabe.
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