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Broadcasters Off Hook for Broadband Act Startup Costs

August 31, 2021 by Dan McCue
(Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – In a world where the cost of almost everything seems to go up for everybody, broadcasters got something of a treat last week.

When the FCC officially set its Fiscal Year 2021 regulatory fees last week, commissioners did away with rate hikes that could have climbed to 15% in some cases associated with the Broadband Data Act.

Signed into law in March 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act is expected to improve the accuracy of the FCC’s broadband availability maps by strengthening the process by which broadband data is collected. 

In the end, the new, more accurate maps of where broadband service exists and at what speeds, will guide the deployment of service to the estimated 20 million Americans who currently have no access to it.

The question before the agency was who was going to share in covering the cost of implementing the act.

The decision to preclude broadcasters came as the commission met to adopt its annual schedule of regulatory fees.

As part of its Fiscal Year 2021 appropriation, Congress directed the commission to assess and collect a total of $374 million in regulatory fees, of which the aforementioned $33 million is to be made available for implementing the Broadband Data Act.

The Act requires the FCC to:

  • Collect standardized data on the availability and quality of both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access;
  • Create a dataset of all locations where fixed broadband Internet access can be installed; 
  • Create publicly available coverage maps.

As part of its collection of information, the Broadband DATA Act requires the commission to include uniform standards for the reporting of broadband internet access service data. 

Almost before the ink from Trump’s pen was dry, broadcasters led by the National Association of Broadcasters argued the proposed fee schedule for this fiscal year unfairly put some of the burden of paying for the Act’s expenses on them.

“They argue that broadcasters are not regulated by, nor do they benefit from, implementation of the Broadband DATA Act,” the FCC’s report and notice of proposed rulemaking said. 

Released on Aug. 27, the report goes on to say the National Association of Broadcasters specifically noted that overhead costs associated with the implementing the Act will only pertain to certain of the commission’s core bureaus, and certain identifiable entities, namely broadband service providers, regulated by and benefiting from implementation of the Act.

In response the commission said, “While we categorize the costs of implementation of the Broadband DATA Act as indirect costs consistent with our normal methodology, in this limited instance, given the one-time nature and magnitude of the earmark, the statutory text, the legislative history, and the record in this proceeding, we exclude one group of regulatees– broadcasters or ‘Media Services’ licensees – from their share of these indirect costs.”

“This one-time modification is consistent with the commission’s long-standing goals of implementing a fair, sustainable, and administrable regulatory fee regime,” the commission added. 

With broadcasters not responsible for contributing to pay for the broadband regulation, other Media Bureau-governed industries, like cable, DBS, and IPTV providers, will have to pay more, but the commission’s order called that decision “fair, sustainable, and administrable because the amounts involved are one-time, large and explicitly quantified by Congress, and because of the unusual position of broadcasters vis-à-vis other commission regulatees in this instance.”

“We do not, at this time, have the option of requiring broadband providers to pay this portion of the appropriation because we do not have a fee category for broadband providers,” the commission said. “We also do not have sufficient information to form the basis of designating a new fee category.” 

With that, the commission amended its notice of proposed rulemaking to seek comment on whether to adopt new regulatory fee categories and on ways to improve the regulatory fee process regarding any and all categories of service. 

“Some commenters suggest that we impose fees on particular industry participants, essentially asking that we consider new fee categories,” the panel said. “For example, NAB asks that unlicensed spectrum users, especially large technology companies, be required to pay regulatory fees, and we seek comment on this proposal.”

 After the changes to the report were codified, Commissioner Brendan Carr thanked his colleagues for “working together to more appropriately tailor the regulatory fee collection for our implementation of the Broadband Data Act.

“I would also like to thank them for agreeing to expand the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to seek comment on whether to update the regulatory fee categories to include large technology companies,” he said. 

In a written statement, NAB Senior Vice President of Communications Ann Marie Cumming said, “The change [in the regulatory fee proposal] is not only the right outcome, but critical to the many broadcasters’ ongoing service to their local communities.

“NAB and our members look forward to working with the FCC in the coming year to take a deeper look at the regulatory fee process to ensure all stakeholders that benefit from the commission’s work are paying their fair share and that those currently subsidizing the commission are no longer paying for work unrelated to their industries,” she said.

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