State Rep. Kalan R. Haywood
Op Ed

Biden Broadband Funding Helps Underserved Communities

But FCC proposal to ban bulk billing could seriously hinder the progress made.

By - May 8th, 2024 12:55 pm
Laptop. (CC0 Public Domain).

Laptop. (CC0 Public Domain).

The people of Milwaukee have greatly benefited from the leadership shown by President Biden to deliver broadband to those who need it, with one example being that about 4-in-5 eligible households (over 107,000 households) in Milwaukee are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a program created under President Biden that helps support low-income residents get online. But I’m concerned that a new proposal from the FCC to ban bulk billing could seriously hinder the progress we’ve made in getting underserved communities online.

Bulk billing is a practice used by affordable housing authorities, HOAs, and other multi-tenant living communities, in which an internet provider partners with these entities to deliver broadband to everyone in the community for a drastically reduced rate. These arrangements can be especially impactful in affordable housing complexes – as the digital equity group EducationSuperHighway has noted, bulk apartment Wi-Fi can cost $15 for a resident in affordable housing compared the standard $70 retail price.

With the proposal to ban bulk billing, the FCC intends to eliminate abuses by some apartment complex owners. In rare cases, landlords don’t issue proper disclaimers to tenants about the bulk billing agreement in their building or add additional costs to the fee in hopes of making a profit. Specific changes that weed this practice out are certainly worth exploring, but by banning bulk billing altogether, the FCC would be getting rid of a practice that the agency itself asserted “predominantly benefit[s] consumers, through reduced rates” during the Obama Administration.

Serious concerns can be raised about the impact this rule would have broadly for consumers, but I’m especially concerned about the unintended impact it’d have on underserved communities by exacerbating the affordability gap. Broadband affordability is the number one barrier keeping Americans offline, and it’s been shown to have an outsized impact on communities of color.

These variables were why it was so important for the Biden Administration to lead in creating the ACP, which has done so much to level the playing field for communities of color. President Biden and the FCC alike have been champions of the program and have repeatedly called for its funding to be extended, but unfortunately, the prospects of this happening appear dim at the moment.

If the ACP expires, we will not only be losing a critical tool for overcoming the affordability gap, but will also need to re-evaluate what other mechanisms we have at our disposal to get underserved communities the financial support they need to get online. Bulk billing partnerships through affordable housing are going to be at the top of the list in terms of effective approaches to do this, we’ve already seen localities in Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina successfully implement this approach, but banning bulk billing would obviously take this potential tool off the table for local governments and housing authorities.

In Milwaukee, where significant portions of our community, particularly in Black and minority neighborhoods have historically struggled with digital accessibility, the implications of this policy in combination with the ACP’s expiration would be severely destabilizing. Higher internet costs mean fewer families can afford reliable service, directly impacting students, job seekers, and those in need of medical consultations via telehealth—all of whom have come to rely heavily on home broadband.

With this in mind, I urge the FCC to revisit its approach and align its actions with the broader goals of the Biden Administration to foster connectivity, not hinder it. This proposal, as it stands, is poised to do more harm than good, risking a significant setback in our collective efforts to bridge America’s digital divide.

State Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) represents Assembly District 16.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

One thought on “Op Ed: Biden Broadband Funding Helps Underserved Communities”

  1. Duane says:

    (From a March 5th FCC press release, it offers the rational for the FCC in doing this)…

    Proposal Seeks to Eliminate Arrangements Imposed on Tenants That Force Them to Stick to a Specific Service Provider

    WASHINGTON, March 5, 2024—FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel today announced a plan to lower costs and address the lack of choice for broadband services available to households in apartments, condos, public housing, and other multi-tenant buildings. Too often, tenants living in these households are forced to pay high prices with limited choices for internet or other services. The Chairwoman’s proposal would seek to eliminate “bulk billing” arrangements imposed on tenants that impose a specific broadband service provider for their household.

    “Everyone deserves to have a choice of broadband provider,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel. “That is why it is not right when your building or apartment complex chooses that service for you, saddling you with unwanted costs, and preventing you from signing up for the plan and provider you really want. This proposal shuts down these practices. It boosts competition and consumer choice and builds on our ongoing efforts to improve broadband transparency.”

    “Specifically, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would propose banning bulk billing arrangements by which tenants are required to pay for broadband, cable, and satellite service provided by a specific communications provider, even if they do not wish to take the service or would prefer to use another provider. It proposes allowing tenants to opt out of bulk billing arrangements”.

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