Broadband Providers Push Back on Proposed Bulk Billing Ban

Digital Inclusion

NCTA urged the commission to seek input before concluding the practice should be blocked.

Jake Neenan Broadband Providers Push Back on Proposed Bulk Billing Ban Photo of apartment building and the BT telecom tower in Birmingham, England by Elliot Brown

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2024 – Broadband industry groups joined landlords in opposing the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed ban on agreements between providers and building owners to provide bulk services to tenants, who are then billed for their share of the total cost.

The proposal to ban bulk billing has only been circulated among agency staff at this point, with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel saying on March 5 that everyone should have a choice in broadband provider and be free from “unwanted costs.”

But housing groups have already met with commissioners’ legal advisors to push back on it, with broadband industry groups not far behind.

NCTA, a major broadband and cable trade group, met with commission staff on March 19 and 20, according to an ex-parte letter posted March 22, and asked the commission to “adopt a neutral item that seeks to build a record on these issues, rather than reaching a tentative conclusion that prohibition or restriction of bulk billing is warranted.”

The group argued that bulk billing agreements are a “critical tool” in connecting to broadband low-income customers, many of whom live in apartment buildings.

“We encouraged the commission to include a robust discussion of the impact of any new regulation on efforts to serve low-income buildings,” NCTA wrote, “including the ability of tenants in these buildings to participate in subsidy programs, to ensure that it develops a complete record that will identify and enable the best solutions to these challenges.”

WISPA, which represents small and wireless broadband providers, met with staffers on the same days. The group argued that bulk billing agreements with smaller providers can be mutually beneficial, with discounted rates for consumers and a stable revenue source for small companies that provide alternatives to

But the group noted that “bulk billing agreements can become problematic when coupled with exclusive agreements such as exclusive marketing, wiring or rooftop access agreements, or do not allow a tenant the right to opt out of a bulk billing service.” In those circumstances, the group wrote, it can be difficult for new providers to enter a building with an existing bulk billing agreement.

Bulk billing has been cited by consumer advocacy groups as a potential loophole in the agency’s 2022 rules banning explicitly exclusive agreements between providers and landlords.

The commission approved rules in February 2022 that prevent some anti-competitive practices in multi-tenant buildings. Those rules block exclusive revenue sharing arrangements between landlords and broadband providers and require the disclosure of exclusive marketing agreements.

But the rules did not cover bulk billing arrangements. Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge told the agency at the time that although such agreements do not explicitly prevent other providers from entering a building, the practical
effect is similar to the exclusive agreements the FCC was targeting.

“When landlords bulk-bill for internet service, they usually don’t allow other ISPs to offer service in the building. Even if they do, any tenant who wanted to use a different provider would still have to pay for the bulk billed service (in addition to the competitive service),” the group told commission staff in February 2022.

The commission has not announced the agenda for its April meeting yet. If the bulk billing proposal is adopted, the agency would seek comment on “other practices that may limit consumer choice in multi-unit buildings” in addition to the bulk billing issue.