House Commerce Leaders Ask NTIA for BEAD Communications with States

Committee Republicans have taken issue with the program's affordability requirements.

House Commerce Leaders Ask NTIA for BEAD Communications with States
Photo of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., from USDA

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2024 – The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday opened an investigation into the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s handling of state plans for the Biden administration’s broadband expansion program.

Republican lawmakers have been chiding NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson and the agency on the issue for months, accusing NTIA of violating the Infrastructure Act’s ban on rate regulation by asking states to set price caps for low-income households served by newly subsidized infrastructure. 

The same law requires some kind of low-cost offering from participating ISPs, but the GOP has taken issue with the agency's method of administering the rule. House Democrats have supported the policy, urging the NTIA to “prioritize affordability” as it manages the program.

The agency has the final say on states’ plans for implementing the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, meaning states must get NTIA approval before accessing their funding allocations.

Now Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Communications and Technology Subcommittee chair Bob Latta, R-Ohio, are asking NTIA, the White House’s chief telecom policy advisor, to turn over its communications with state broadband offices related to the evaluation of their BEAD plans, including written feedback and edits, by July 23. Neither mentioned the new investigation at an Federal Communications Commission budget hearing earlier today.

Rodgers and Latta are also looking for “all instances where a state’s initial proposal was not accepted without edits or initially rejected or required to be resubmitted due in part to the BEAD’s low-cost option requirement pricing as a factor in the decision.” They are also seeking a commitment to post summaries of states’ feedback on the agency’s website.

As they’ve done before, committee members pointed to a disagreement between the agency and Virginia, in which the NTIA asked the state to set out an “exact price or formula” for its low-cost requirement before getting approval.

“Based on anecdotal evidence from different entities involved in the process, it appears that the NTIA may be evaluating initial proposals counter to Congressional intent and in violation of the law,” top committee Republicans wrote in a July 9 letter to Davidson. “States have reported that the NTIA is directing them to set rates and conditioning approval of initial proposals on doing so. This undoubtedly constitutes rate regulation by the NTIA.”

All states and territories submitted their BEAD proposals by the agency’s December 2023 deadline, and all have had the first half of their plans approved, but the second half, which is more technical and includes the low-cost requirement at issue for committee lawmakers, has been slower. 

Since submission, 16 have been given the green light for their second half plans. The agency has said it plans to move faster and get the rest out the door by fall.

A spokesperson for NTIA, the Commerce Department division running the BEAD program said the agency “received the letter and will respond through the appropriate channels. NTIA is working to implement BEAD in a manner that is faithful to the statute.”

Davidson and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have both argued to Congress that the affordability requirements don’t rise to the level of rate regulation.

“The statute requires that there be a low-cost service option,” Davidson said at a May House oversight hearing. “We do not believe the states are regulating rates here. We believe that this is a condition to get a federal grant. Nobody’s requiring a service provider to follow these rates, people do not have to participate in the program.”

Update: This story was updated to include a statement from the NTIA.

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