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Small ISPs eye potential broadband subsidy

It remains unclear whether broadband will be part of the expected infrastructure package from the new administration and if so, what the funding structure would look like. But small broadband providers are still very interested in the program, Matt Polka, president and CEO of the American Cable Association said in an interview at the ACA Summit on March 29.

Many ISPs are not the biggest fans of government subsidy, especially if it funds existing networks, thus creating overbuilding. Some broadband providers were critical of the broadband stimulus program a few years ago, for example, mostly due to these overbuilding concerns.

According to Polka, small ISPs, however, generally welcome the potential broadband funding this time around and look forward to seeing details around eligibility, as long as the money only goes to unserved areas.

Small ISPs are encouraged by initiatives from new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to improve the agency's process and to reduce regulatory burdens for small operators, Polka said. The ACA trade group he heads represents 850 small and midsize independent communications providers. Notably, public interest and consumer groups, such as Free Press and Public Knowledge are concerned this deregulation will harm consumers and competition.

Commenting at the summit on the relationships among the three commissioners at the FCC under the new chairman, fellow Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly said "it helps that we all get along," referring to Pai as "my good friend." Pai and O'Rielly repeatedly criticized previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler over what they perceived as a lack of transparency at the agency. The pair previously complained they were often left out of the agency's decision-making processes.

Lawmakers speaking at the summit, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said they hope to see broadband as part of the expected infrastructure package too. The package requires "public-private partnerships," said Schrader. He noted parties from both sides of the aisle agree that "we need to watch what's going on" in terms of funding distribution to prevent waste and fraud.

Schrader, a member of the Commerce Committee, has pushed for better FCC processes in the past. He was among the 64 lawmakers who wrote to the FCC in September 2016 urging the agency to allow for additional time for public comments on a controversial proposal related to set-top boxes, for instance.

Capito, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, meanwhile, introduced a bill March 17 to measure the economic impact of broadband on the economy.

"Broadband connectivity has the power to unleash jobs and fuel economic growth throughout the country, especially in rural areas like West Virginia," Capito said in a statement when announcing the bill. "This legislation will provide the data needed to measure the benefits of broadband accessibility and the importance of investing in critical broadband infrastructure."

FCC Chairman Pai is scheduled to speak at the summit March 30.