US Senators provide glimmer of hope for ACP


If the amendment is passed, ACP would undergo modifications

Amid confusion about the future of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), several senators have proposed a new means of funding the program.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act that would provide $6 billion in funding for the ACP. The amendment also allocates $3 billion  for the “rip-and-replace” program which funds the removal and disposal of wireless equipment from vendors deemed insecure by the federal government. Congress is aiming to pass the FAA bill before the agency’s operating authority expires on Friday, May 10.

The ACP has provided a $30/month broadband subsidy for over 23 million households (up to $75/month on tribal land) and is in its final month of funding. The maximum benefit in May is $14 per household (off tribal land) as funds dry up. The rip-and-replace program provides funding for operators to remove and replace equipment from untrusted providers including Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation. It is facing a funding shortfall of over $3 billion.

The amendment was proposed by senators Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), JD Vance (R-OH), Peter Welch (D-VT), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Support for additional ACP funding has consistently been bipartisan.

By attaching  ACP and rip-and-replace funds to this must-pass bill, senators are hoping to overcome the delays that have prevented previous bills, and even calls from the White House, from succeeding in funding the programs. The amendment will require a vote in the Senate or approval from Senate leadership to be attached to the FAA legislation.

Notably, the funding proposed for the ACP in this amendment is lower than the $7 billion Congress proposed in the ACP Extension Act. In addition, there will be significant tweaks to the program.

If the amendment is passed, ACP income eligibility would reduce from 200% of federal poverty line to 135%, in line with eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline Program. The amendment would also repeal the ACP’s one-time device subsidy, eliminate ACP eligibility through U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Program, and require FCC to update ACP rules within 180 days of enactment.

In a note to investors, New Street Research Analyst and former FCC official Blair Levin wrote that “while there remains uncertainty about the fate of this amendment and the FAA reauthorization process, for the first time we think there is a material chance that an ACP extension happens.” In part, this is due to the fact that the Republican co-sponsors of the bill “carry significant weight in the Republican Senate caucus,” increasing the chance of Republican support for passage of the new bill.

Gigi Sohn, executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB) encouraged the Senate “to move quickly to add this amendment” to prevent the 23 million households who use ACP from losing internet access. “By doing so, Congress would give themselves and the FCC time to start the process of reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF) so it can provide a permanent funding mechanism for low-income families to get and stay connected,” Sohn said in a statement.

Levin echoed this sentiment, noting that if the amendment passes, it will set up a “ticking clock” for Congress to adopt USF reforms that would “put the ACP (and the rest of the USF system) on a sustainable framework.”

Further public support for the amendment has come from Kathryn de Wit, director of Pew’s broadband access initiative, and Joe Kane, director of broadband and spectrum policy at ITIF.

“With millions of people lacking access to a service that has become essential for quality of life and economic well-being, the time to act is now,” de Wit told Fierce Network. Kane applauded the amendment as “the most united, bipartisan effort to extend ACP yet” while admitting disappointment at the proposed shrinkage of the program.

If the amendment passes, the $6 billion is likely to last a year. Furthermore, there is still debate over whether the ACP should be absorbed into the USF, and about how the USF should be reformed. It’s clear that, as Kane noted, “this is not the end of the ACP saga.”

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