House Democrats Urge NTIA to Prioritize Affordability for BEAD

Digital Inclusion

Their Republican counterparts and conservative groups have opposed the agency’s low-cost policies.

Jake Neenan House Democrats Urge NTIA to Prioritize Affordability for BEAD Photo of Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., from her web site.

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2024 – All 12 Democrats on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee wrote on Tuesday to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration urging the agency to prioritize affordability as it manages its $42.5-billion broadband expansion program.

The NTIA’s mechanism for doing that is its policy requiring states – the entities ultimately awarding grants under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program – to ensure participating providers set up an affordable option for low-income households. The agency can consult with states to ensure their low-cost provisions are satisfactory before approving BEAD implementation plans and allowing programs funds out the door. 

“It would be a significant missed opportunity in the administration of BEAD if these affordability provisions are not exercised to their fullest to help middle-class and low-income Americans afford the cost of internet service,” the lawmakers wrote. Signatories included House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, and Communications Subcommittee Ranking Member Doris Matsui, D-California.

The provisions seem set to lose some of their efficacy as the Affordable Connectivity Program moves closer to drying up in the coming months. The ACP provides a $30 monthly internet discount to more than 23 million low-income households, and providers looking for BEAD grants would be required to participate.

Louisiana, the only state to have its BEAD proposal fully approved by the NTIA, set its baseline low-cost option at $30, effectively providing free internet for low-income consumers and stable revenue for providers should Congress act to refund the ACP or a successor program. The state will give applicants room to raise low-cost plans to $65 if necessary for the financial sustainability of a project.

The agency has shown a preference for Louisiana’s approach. In response to a draft proposal from Virgina which would require providers to propose and justify their own low-cost plans, the NTIA asked for something stronger.

The agency “must be able to determine the impact to a customer at the Initial Proposal stage – it isn’t enough to know as of the Final Proposal. Thus the low-cost option must be established in the Initial Proposal as an exact price or formula,” it said in a letter to the state.

For their part, Republicans on the Communications and Technology Subcommittee have accused NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson of violating the law by pursuing strong affordability policies.

The Infrastructure Act bars the NTIA from regulating broadband rates in its role as BEAD administrator. For Republican members of the subcommittee, signing off on state plans with specific low-cost requirements crosses that line.

“As we have said before, NTIA’s approval of state plans that include rate regulation is NTIA regulating rates in violation of the IIJA,” they wrote in a December 15 letter to Davidson.

Earlier this month, more than 20 conservative groups urged GOP lawmakers to “demand the release of BEAD funds” to states whose plans do not include mandatory low-cost price points, citing similar rate regulation concerns.

The issue came up at a December House oversight hearing in which Davidson defended the policy, noting the agency is not handing down blanket price requirements.

“We are not setting a price at the NTIA. We are not setting a national price for broadband,” he said at the hearing.