PITTSBURGH, January 26, 2021 – The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program must ensure that eligible households have sufficient broadband options available when the program starts, including robust wireline options that can support the full range of connectivity needs brought on by COVID-19. To provide such choice, the FCC must commit itself to this goal and take steps necessary to minimize the barriers to entry for providers of reliable, robust broadband service that are not current or active participants in the agency’s own Lifeline program.
These recommendations came in comments ACA Connects filed Monday in response to an FCC Wireline Bureau Public Notice on the new program, which was created by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
“The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is a tremendous opportunity to help Americans who are suffering hardship during COVID-19. Many are having trouble affording the level of broadband access that they need for themselves and their families, and this program can connect each eligible household with a broadband offering that meets its needs,” ACA Connects President and CEO Matthew M. Polka said. “To achieve that outcome, the FCC must present households with a range of options for their benefit, and that means creating a streamlined process that encourages service providers of all types to join the program.”
In its comments, ACA Connects focused on ways the FCC can maximize participation from providers, and with it, consumer choice. The trade association stressed the importance of setting a common start date on which all providers can begin participating in the program.
“If providers that participate in Lifeline today are given the first crack at signing up customers and consuming the program’s limited funds, other providers – including ACA Connects members and other providers of high-speed broadband service – may decide that participation would be fruitless and will sit on the sidelines. That would be a bad outcome for consumers, who would be left with fewer choices. By contrast, a common start date will incentivize competition among providers to provide the best offerings and to identify and market their services to eligible households.” Polka said.
As further steps to help consumers take advantage of this new program, ACA Connects encouraged the FCC to publish a comprehensive list of participating providers and to conduct outreach to promote awareness of the benefit.
ACA Connects also called on the FCC to authorize the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to begin the necessary work to stand up the new program and to help non-Lifeline providers get up to speed.
“USAC’s work must begin immediately. It will need to upgrade existing Lifeline databases to accommodate their use in the new program. It will also need to educate and provide hands-on training to non-Lifeline providers that lack familiarity with these databases. These tasks — and more — will be a significant undertaking, but with proper planning, getting this done need not delay the start of the program or interfere with providing maximum choice for consumers on day one,” Polka said.
In addition, ACA Connects recommended ways the FCC can streamline its approval of non-Lifeline providers to participate in the program.
“A broadband provider that has an existing relationship with the FCC and is in good standing should be approved for this program without delay. To hold these providers accountable, the FCC should adopt a model compliance plan or similar measures in lieu of requiring each provider to create its own plan,” Polka said.
Also, building on a statutory requirement that the FCC “automatically approve” a provider if it had a qualifying low-income broadband program in place as of April 1, ACA Connects urged the FCC to extend the same treatment to any provider that implemented such a program between April 1 and October 1 in response to COVID-19.
To ensure a smooth transition when the program ends, ACA Connects encouraged the FCC to report every two weeks on the depletion of program funds and on the number of households receiving the benefit at different subsidy levels. That information will enable providers to budget and plan, as well as help their customers move into a service plan that meets their needs when the program expires.
About ACA Connects: America’s Communications Association – Based in Pittsburgh, ACA Connects is a trade organization representing more than 700 smaller and medium-sized, independent companies that provide broadband, phone and video services to nearly 8 million customers primarily located in rural and smaller suburban markets across America. Through active participation in the regulatory and legislative process in Washington, D.C., ACA Connects’ members work together to advance the interests of their customers and ensure the future competitiveness and viability of their businesses. For more information, visit: http://www.ACAConnects.org