Connectivity Advocates Join Industry and Landlords in Opposing Bulk Billing Proposal

EducationSuperHighway told FCC staff the practice can benefit low-income residents.

Connectivity Advocates Join Industry and Landlords in Opposing Bulk Billing Proposal
Photo of Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway from PolymathV

WASHINGTON, April 9, 2024 – Advocacy nonprofit EducationSuperHighway has joined industry groups and landlords in asking the Federal Communications Commission to rethink its proposal to ban bulk billing agreements between building owners and ISPs.

The group, which backs efforts to expand affordable broadband, met with commission staff twice in recent weeks to argue the practice can lower adoption barriers in low-income and public housing by providing automatic sign-ups and lower monthly rates.

Allowing low-income households to opt out of bulk billing agreements can provide a false sense of choice, an EducationSuperHighway spokesperson said, as market rate broadband is often more expensive and thus less accessible than service provided through bulk agreements.

“The majority of communities with access to the internet are limited to one or two incumbent ISPs, and many households in public and affordable housing struggle to afford the market-rate retail service offerings,” the group wrote in an April 8 blog post.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced on March 5 she was circulating a draft item that would seek comment on a proposal to ban anti-competitive arrangements in which a building’s tenants cannot opt out of paying for broadband, cable, or satellite service from a certain provider. 

"Everyone deserves to have a choice of broadband provider," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "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.”

The measure is not yet public and won’t be up for a vote at the agency’s April 25 meeting, according to a tentative agenda released last week.

Housing groups and the cable industry were quick to push back. They met with commission staff the next week urging the agency to open an inquiry into the effects of bulk billing on competition and consumer choice before putting forward a proposal to nix the practice.

Smaller providers are also weary. WISPA, a trade group representing small and wireless broadband providers, told legal advisors to Chairwoman Rosenworcel and Commissioner Brendan Carr that although competitive providers can get blocked out of buildings where landlords have existing agreements with incumbents, the practice can give their members a “stable and steady customer base” with “a significant reduction in transactional costs.” 

The agency adopted rules similar to the March 5 proposal in 2022, which blocked anti-competitive practices like exclusive revenue sharing agreements between landlords and service providers, but they applied only to telecommunications carriers rather than to providers that only offer broadband. 

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge had pushed the agency to go further and ban bulk billing and exclusive marketing on the grounds that those practices hinder competition in a similar way to the revenue sharing agreements the FCC was targeting.

The commission had considered taking action against bulk billing in 2010, but ultimately decided against it.

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