Republicans slam broadband discounts for poor people, threaten to kill program

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Republicans slam broadband discounts for poor people, threaten to kill program

Thune, Cruz complain that $30 discounts go to people who "already had broadband."

JON BRODKIN - 12/19/2023, 1:28 PM

Senate Minority Whip John Thune gestures with his right hand while speaking to reporters.

Enlarge / Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) speaks to reporters after the weekly Senate Republican caucus lunch on November 14, 2023, in Washington, DC.

Getty Images | Anna Rose Layden

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Republican members of Congress blasted a program that gives $30 monthly broadband discounts to people with low incomes, accusing the Federal Communications Commission of being "wasteful." The lawmakers suggested in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that they may try to block funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which is expected to run out of money in April 2024.

"As lawmakers with oversight responsibility over the ACP, we have raised concerns, shared by the FCC Inspector General, regarding the program's effectiveness in connecting non-subscribers to the Internet," the lawmakers wrote. "While you have repeatedly claimed that the ACP is necessary for connecting participating households to the Internet, it appears the vast majority of tax dollars have gone to households that already had broadband prior to the subsidy."

The letter was sent Friday by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). Cruz is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, and Thune is the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. McMorris Rodgers is chair of the House Commerce Committee, and Latta is chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

The letter questioned Rosenworcel's testimony at a recent House hearing in which she warned that 25 million households could lose Internet access if Congress doesn't renew the ACP discounts. The ACP was created by congressional legislation, but Republicans are wary of continuing it. The program began with $14.2 billion a little less than two years ago.

"At a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on November 30, 2023, you asserted—without evidence and contrary to the FCC's own data—that '25 million households' would be 'unplug[ged]…from the Internet' if Congress does not provide new funding for the ACP," the letter said. "This is not true. As Congress considers the future of taxpayer broadband subsidies, we ask you to correct the hearing record and make public accurate information about the ACP."

“Reckless spending spree”

The letter criticizes what it calls "the Biden administration's reckless spending spree" and questions whether the ACP is worth paying for:

It is incumbent on lawmakers to protect taxpayers and make funding decisions based on clear evidence. Unfortunately, your testimony pushes "facts" about the ACP that are deeply misleading and have the potential to exacerbate the fiscal crisis without producing meaningful benefits to the American consumer. We therefore ask you to supplement your testimony from November 30, 2023, with the correct information about the number of Americans that will "lose" broadband if the ACP does not receive additional funds, and correct the hearing record accordingly by January 5, 2024.

During the November 30 hearing, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said she will introduce legislation to re-fund the program. The ACP has widespread support from consumer advocates and the telecom industry. Additionally, the governors of 25 US states and Puerto Rico urged Congress to extend the ACP in a November 13 letter.

The Biden administration has requested $6 billion to fund the program through December 2024. Rosenworcel's office declined to comment on the Republicans' letter when contacted by Ars today.

Although the FCC operates the discount program, it has to do so within parameters set by Congress. The FCC's ACP rulemaking noted that the income-eligibility guidelines were determined by Congress.

GOP claims “wasteful discrepancies”

Referring to the percentage of ACP recipients who previously subscribed to broadband, the GOP letter said:

According to your [Rosenworcel's] testimony, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) found that only '20 or 22 percent' of ACP recipients lacked broadband prior to the ACP. Previous FCC surveys have found the number of non-subscribers served by the program to be even lower at 16 percent. The program's record of targeting taxpayer subsidies to consumers who already had broadband is further apparent in the FCC's enrollment numbers: The number of households in the ACP—approximately 22 million—far exceeds the 16 million unconnected households according to 2021 Census data.

Many of the current ACP recipients may have previously acquired broadband service through a predecessor discount program, so they weren't necessarily paying full price to begin with. The FCC implemented the $30 monthly ACP benefit in early 2022, replacing the previous $50 monthly subsidy from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that started enrolling users in May 2021. Both programs were authorized by Congress.

The Republicans' letter criticized Rosenworcel's response to questions about how many ACP recipients previously had broadband. "When questioned about these wasteful discrepancies, you dismissed these concerns, claiming that Congress did not require broadband providers to ask subscribers whether they paid for broadband prior to the ACP program," the Republicans told the FCC chairwoman. "You claimed, therefore, that any data on the ratio of new subscribers to subscribers who previously paid for broadband prior to ACP was merely 'speculative.'"

The Republicans also urged Rosenworcel to provide data on "the number of households enrolled through each eligibility threshold, including through a participating provider's existing low-income broadband program," and "data on broadband adoption by first-time subscribers."

FCC Chair: “We’ll have to unplug households”

During her testimony, Rosenworcel said the ACP is providing discounts for over 22 million households and that the FCC expects that number to reach 25 million by April, based on enrollment trends. She also touted the ACP as "the largest broadband affordability effort in United States history."

"We have come so far, we can't go back," Rosenworcel told Congress. "We need Congress to continue to fund this program. If Congress does not, in April of next year, we'll have to unplug households and, based on current projections, it'll be about 25 million households we will unplug from the Internet in April."

The Republicans' letter called the 25 million figure "speculative."

"If you are going to dismiss concerns over the ACP's inefficiency as unproven (even where there is ample data underlying this fact), you should hold yourself to the same standard and avoid sweeping claims of effectiveness with no basis in data," the letter said.

The White House said in October that the ACP has proven to be especially critical for rural, remote, and tribal communities. While the standard discount is $30 a month, the program provides $75 monthly subsidies on tribal lands and in "high-cost" areas where the cost of building broadband networks is higher than average.

"Without this funding, tens of millions of people would lose this benefit and would no longer be able to afford high-speed Internet service without sacrificing other necessities," the White House said when it asked Congress for more ACP funding.
 

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Court upholds New York law that says ISPs must offer $15 broadband​

New York obtains significant win for states' ability to regulate broadband.​

JON BRODKIN - 4/26/2024, 5:10 PM

A judge's gavel resting on a pile of one-dollar bills

Enlarge

Getty Images | Creativeye99

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A federal appeals court today reversed a ruling that prevented New York from enforcing a law requiring Internet service providers to sell $15 broadband plans to low-income consumers. The ruling is a loss for six trade groups that represent ISPs, although it isn't clear right now whether the law will be enforced.

New York's Affordable Broadband Act (ABA) was blocked in June 2021 by a US District Court judge who ruled that the state law is rate regulation and preempted by federal law. Today, the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed the ruling and vacated the permanent injunction that barred enforcement of the state law.

For consumers who qualify for means-tested government benefits, the state law requires ISPs to offer "broadband at no more than $15 per month for service of 25Mbps, or $20 per month for high-speed service of 200Mbps," the ruling noted. The law allows for price increases every few years and makes exemptions available to ISPs with fewer than 20,000 customers.

"First, the ABA is not field-preempted by the Communications Act of 1934 (as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996), because the Act does not establish a framework of rate regulation that is sufficiently comprehensive to imply that Congress intended to exclude the states from entering the field," a panel of appeals court judges stated in a 2-1 opinion.

Trade groups claimed the state law is preempted by former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai's repeal of net neutrality rules. Pai's repeal placed ISPs under the more forgiving Title I regulatory framework instead of the common-carrier framework in Title II of the Communications Act.

2nd Circuit judges did not find this argument convincing:

Second, the ABA is not conflict-preempted by the Federal Communications Commission's 2018 order classifying broadband as an information service. That order stripped the agency of its authority to regulate the rates charged for broadband Internet, and a federal agency cannot exclude states from regulating in an area where the agency itself lacks regulatory authority. Accordingly, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and VACATE the permanent injunction.

Be careful what you lobby for​

The judges' reasoning is similar to what a different appeals court said in 2019 when it rejected Pai's attempt to preempt all state net neutrality laws. In that case, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that "in any area where the Commission lacks the authority to regulate, it equally lacks the power to preempt state law." In a related case, ISPs were unable to block a California net neutrality law.

Several of the trade groups that sued New York "vociferously lobbied the FCC to classify broadband Internet as a Title I service in order to prevent the FCC from having the authority to regulate them," today's 2nd Circuit ruling said. "At that time, Supreme Court precedent was already clear that when a federal agency lacks the power to regulate, it also lacks the power to preempt. The Plaintiffs now ask us to save them from the foreseeable legal consequences of their own strategic decisions. We cannot."

Judges noted that there are several options for ISPs to try to avoid regulation:

If they believe a requirement to provide Internet to low-income families at a reduced price is unfair or misguided, they have several pathways available to them. They could take it up with the New York State Legislature. They could ask Congress to change the scope of the FCC's Title I authority under the Communications Act. They could ask the FCC to revisit its classification decision, as it has done several times before But they cannot ask this Court to distort well-established principles of administrative law and federalism to strike down a state law they do not like.

Coincidentally, the 2nd Circuit issued its opinion one day after current FCC leadership reclassified broadband again in order to restore net neutrality rules. ISPs might now have a better case for preempting the New York law. The FCC itself won't necessarily try to preempt New York's law, but the agency's net neutrality order does specifically reject rate regulation at the federal level.

Ruling important for state authority, professor says​

Stanford Law Professor Barbara van Schewick said today's ruling provides states with important protections in the event that the FCC ever deregulates broadband again. "Today's decision means that if a future FCC again decided to abdicate its oversight over broadband like it did in 2017, the states have strong legal precedent, across circuits, to institute their own protections or re-activate dormant ones," she said.

Combined with other rulings like the one upholding California's net neutrality law, van Schewick says that "case law is now abundantly clear that if the FCC eliminates its authority over broadband by miscategorizing it as a Title I information service, then the states can step in."

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, said that "today's decision holds that FCC regulations do not interfere with the states' ability to ensure that their residents have affordable access... This decision provides a roadmap for other states to follow to join New York in doing what the federal government has thus far failed to do."

The dissenting judge in today's 2nd Circuit ruling, Richard Sullivan, wrote that the state law "is field-preempted because the Communications Act preempts all rate regulation of interstate communication services. By its text, the Communications Act grants the FCC authority over 'all interstate' communication services—save for a limited set of state-law prohibitions—while leaving to the states the power to regulate intrastate communications."

States have the power to enforce consumer protection laws. But because "rate regulation was not one of those traditional spheres of state authority, only the FCC retains the authority to regulate rates of interstate communications," he wrote.

Lobby groups disappointed​

Sullivan also argued that the appeals court lacks jurisdiction. "After New York was preliminarily enjoined from enforcing the ABA, it stipulated to judgment against it, and then appealed that stipulated judgment. This was a strategic move," Sullivan wrote.

This tactic "is generally not permitted as a shortcut to appellate review," Sullivan wrote. However, the majority decided that the court has "appellate jurisdiction because the district court plainly rejected the legal basis for New York's preemption defenses, all claims have been disposed of with prejudice, the stipulation was designed solely to obtain immediate appellate review and does not circumvent restrictions on our appellate jurisdiction, and New York expressly preserved the right to appeal."

The lobby groups that sued New York issued a joint statement saying they "are disappointed by the court's decision and New York state's move for rate regulation in competitive industries. It not only discourages the needed investment in our nation's infrastructure, but also potentially risks the sustainability of broadband operations in many areas."

The groups that sued New York are the New York State Telecommunications Association; CTIA; America's Communications Association (formerly the American Cable Association); USTelecom; NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association; and the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association. The groups could seek a rehearing before all 2nd Circuit judges or appeal to the Supreme Court. They could also seek preemption on the basis of the FCC's more recent decision to classify broadband under Title II.
 

DonB90

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I expect Republicans to be like this.

I expect Democrats to roll over and not fight against it. The problem is when I voted for Democrats I voted for them thinking they would
 

The Fade

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we can give money and tax breaks to trustfund kids who didnt earn shyt but not poor people
 
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