FCC Chair Seeks $6 Billion to Continue Internet Subsidies for Low-Income Households
FCC Chair Seeks $6 Billion to Continue Internet Subsidies for Low-Income Households

By Aaron Gifford

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asked members of Congress for $6 billion in emergency aid on Thursday to continue funding internet subsidies for low-income households.

Ms. Rosenworcel also requested a nearly 15 percent increase to the agency’s operations budget for 2025, which would add 1,600 employees, improve a mapping system for broadband access, and bolster satellite technology that she maintains is needed to keep up with rapid advances in the telecommunications industry. The hike would bring the FCC’s budget next year to $448 million.

The FCC’s commissioner, Brendan Carr, told the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington that he opposed both requests, calling them financially irresponsible.

About 85 percent of the 23 million people who receive subsidies under the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) would still have internet access at home if they did not take the federal money, he said, and the agency’s proposed 2025 spending plan identifies DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives like webinars and dialog sessions for “eliminating systemic barriers” as the second-highest priority even though it doesn’t detail estimated costs.

“Given the data, I don’t think that Congress should simply add more money to ACP,” Mr. Carr said. Instead, it should focus on reforms. That means taking a fresh look at eligibility—targeting those who would otherwise lack service—rightsizing the effort, and significantly increasing program safeguards.”

Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that held the hearing, also criticized the funding requests. “Such actions are not one that an independent agency like this one should be focused on,” he said.

The ACP, launched in late 2021 when it was allocated $14.2 billion by Congress, has provided discounted internet service to about 23 million U.S. residents. Most recipients were eligible to receive up to $30 a month, while those on Indian reservations could receive up to $75 a month. The fund will be exhausted in less than two weeks.

Ms. Rosenworcel said that most ACP recipients live in rural areas. “This is a program that helps everyone,” she said. “But we shouldn’t stop here and now. This is a program that will help close the digital divide.”

Ms. Rosenworcel also defended her proposed budget, saying that the FCC has been understaffed since the mid-1990s. With ongoing cybersecurity threats, there is an urgent need for more engineers and technicians within the agency, she said. The agency wants to accelerate progress in combatting telephone scams. Completing the nationwide broadband map is crucial because it will show precisely where broadband infrastructure improvements are made and how much they’ll cost, Ms. Rosenworcel said.

“This map is your tool for accountability,” she said.

National Security

Mr. Joyce said he is surprised that the proposed budget does not continue the FCC’s “Rip and Replace” program for removing and disposing of telecom equipment made by two Chinese companies that raised national security concerns.

Under that initiative, the FCC provided vendors with new equipment when they turned in products made by Huawei or ZTE. He said that the program, like the ACP, will rely on emergency funding requests. The FCC chairwoman responded that Rip and Replace would cost about $3 billion more than initially projected, but she still considers it essential.

“We need to take insecure equipment from China out of our nation’s networks.” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “We have roughly 122 providers have signed up for reimbursement, and at present, based on the appropriation that Congress gave us, we can only offer then 40 cents on the dollar for the replacement of that network equipment.”

Revenue from FCC spectrum auctions, where wireless and broadcast services bid on license rights, could be used to shore up the Rip and Replace program, Ms. Rosenworcel added.

“Right now we’re going to need those monies to make sure that those networks, which generally serve rural communities, continue to stay up and running and can remain secure,” she said.

The committee discussed several other matters related to FCC operations and the budget request, including cybersecurity, the prioritization of new utility poles in low-income communities, telehealth funding and regulations, and emergency 911 center upgrades.

Ms. Rosenworcel explained that E-911 and its interoperability with the 988 emergency mental health service are a major concern because dispatch centers are locally funded and controlled. In many parts of the country, emergency telecommunication systems still struggle with different area codes and cell phone calls because the equipment is outdated.

The subcommittee noted that relief for cash-strapped county-level 911 dispatch centers might be in sight under future legislation that would recognize emergency communications call center staff as emergency responders, making localities eligible for national public safety grants.

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