Senate Commerce Panel Postpones Markup of ACP Bill for a Fourth Time


The Democratic committee chair secured backing from the Defense Department, but committee Republicans still opposed the measure.

Jake Neenan Senate Commerce Panel Postpones Markup of ACP Bill for a Fourth Time Photo of Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, by Gage Skidmore

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2024 – The Senate Commerce Committee postponed for a fourth time a markup of legislation that would fund the expired Affordable Connectivity Program.

The Spectrum and National Security Act had been set for a markup on Tuesday morning, but was pulled late Monday night. This time Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the bill’s lead sponsor, cited opposition from ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other Republicans on the committee.

“We had a chance to secure affordable broadband for millions of Americans, but Sen. Cruz said ‘no,’” Cantwell said in a statement. “He said ‘no’ to securing a lifeline for millions of Americans who rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program to speak to their doctors, do their homework, connect to their jobs, and stay in touch with loved ones – including more than one million Texas families.”

The bill would also reinstate the Federal Communications Commission’s lapsed authority to auction spectrum bands to commercial users, tapping future proceeds to repay U.S. Treasury loans to shore up the agency’s expired ACP with $7 billion and the underfunded rip and replace program with $3 billion. 

A revised version, edited to add changes requested by the Commerce and Defense departments in exchange for their support, would scrap the bill’s only required auction.

It would also make federal agencies more involved in mandated studies of government bands for potential sharing with industry. The DOD has been wary of industry players eyeing its spectrum, rebuffing 5G industry efforts to gain access to its lower 3 GHz band, but recently agreed to more lenient terms in the band currently shared between companies and Navy radars.

Cruz and other committee Republicans oppose both Cantwell’s approach to spectrum policy and her decision to add funds to the ACP without tightening eligibility requirements. 

A last-ditch effort at preventing the ACP from expiring managed to draw support from Republican senators by lowering the income at which households become eligible for the program’s $30 monthly internet discount, as well as reducing other avenues for eligibility. 

That and other frenzied legislative efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the program ran out of funds on June 1, leaving 23 million households with higher internet bills.

On the spectrum policy front, Republicans want more spectrum tapped for auction and less of a focus on sharing. A bill put forward by Cruz and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also aimed at restoring the FCC’s auction authority, would mandate the auction of 1,250 MHz of spectrum for exclusive use and would not dedicate the proceeds to any spending priorities.

The mobile wireless industry has been more receptive to the Cruz-Thune bill, as it relied on exclusive licenses to serve customers. Proponents of unlicensed spectrum and dynamic sharing, like the Wi-Fi industry and cable companies that use the shared CBRS band for fixed wireless broadband, have preferred the Cantwell proposal.

Democrats hold a 14-13 majority on the Senate Commerce Committee, but Republicans filed several amendments to Cantwell’s bill that could have stalled Tuesday’s proceeding, according to New Street Research analyst Blair Levin. Those included efforts to reverse the FCC’s net neutrality rules and to deny ACP benefits to undocumented immigrants.

“This is a case where nobody really wins and everyone is unhappy about both the lack of progress with spectrum and ACP, but that unhappiness is unlikely to translate to legislation in the near-term,” Levin wrote in a note to investors Tuesday morning.

Senate majority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined Cantwell in taking shots at Cruz.

“Instead of making these much-needed and common-sense investments, Sen. Cruz has chosen to obstruct and delay the committee process with petty partisan culture wars all to serve wealthy and well-connected corporations at the cost of working Americans who are struggling to get by,” he said in a statement.

Cruz said in response statement: “In his shameless blame-game, Leader Schumer accidentally revealed what he and his party really think about taxpayers – that they are dupes who should be forced to give free internet to illegal aliens, millions to antisemitic universities, and billions to mega-corporations with no strings attached.”

Update: This story was updated to add statements from Cruz and Schumer.