Should Grant Networks Allow High Prices?

I wrote a blog yesterday about a grant application filed in Nebraska by AMG Technology Investment Group (Nextlink Internet). This is one of the companies that won the RDOF reverse auction at the FCC but is still waiting to hear if it will be awarded the FCC subsidy funding.

One of the things that caught my eye on the grant request was the proposed broadband rate. Nextlink is proposing a rate of $109.95 for a 2-year contract for 100/100 Mbps. I have to assume that the rate without a 2-year contract is even higher – or maybe a customer can’t buy broadband for less than a 2-year commitment.

Today’s blog asks the question – should higher-than-market rates be allowed on a network that is being subsidized with public funding? This is not the first time I’ve seen a rate that high, and I can recall at least two other RDOF winners planning on basic rates of at least $100. One example is Starlink, which also has not yet been approved by the FCC for RDOF and which has a $110 rate.

I don’t think there is any question that a $110 rate is higher than the market. Should an agency that awards grants or other broadband subsidies somehow insist that broadband rates are somehow tied to market rates? That’s a lot harder question to answer than you might think because the question implies that these agencies have the power to regulate or cap broadband prices in grant areas.

The Ajit Pai FCC voluntarily gave away the right for the FCC to regulate broadband rates when it gave up Title II authority. It’s not clear if that decision has any bearing on other federal agencies that award grants like NTIA, EDA, and USDA. Can these federal agencies insist on affordable rates for ISPs that take federal funding? If not, can the agencies at least consider rates when deciding who gets grant funding – can these agencies assign fewer qualifying grant points to somebody with a $100 basic rate compared to somebody with a $50 rate?

I think we got a hint that considering rates is probably allowed since Congress made it clear with the BEAD legislation that the NTIA has no authority to regulate rates – this implies that without that specific Congressional mandate that the NTIA might have had that authority. But even the specific BEAD edict might not mean that rates can’t be considered in BEAD grants.

It’s an even fuzzier question if a State has the right to set rates. There have always been two schools of thought about the scope of State versus Federal authority in terms of regulating broadband. I’ve heard it argued that a State’s right to regulate broadband rolls downhill from the federal ability to regulate. If you believe in this philosophy, then a State’s right to regulate broadband rates was severely weakened when the FCC gave up its rights. But I’ve also heard just the opposite argued – that a State has the right to step into any regulatory void left by federal regulators. We recently saw this concept in action when courts recently upheld California’s right to implement net neutrality rules after the FCC washed its hands of such authority. If you accept this view of regulation, a State can tackle rate regulation if the FCC refuses to do so.

To be fair to Nextlink, the company also offers less expensive broadband rates. Its fixed wireless products, rates start at $69.95 for a 15 Mbps download connection. Fiber prices start at $49.99 for a 25 Mbps download speed. But these lower rates for slower speeds raise more questions for me. Many of the current broadband grants require building networks that can deliver at least 100/100 Mbps broadband. Should an ISP be able to use a grant-funded network to offer anything slower? The whole point of these grant programs is to bring faster broadband across America. Should a network that is funded with public money be allowed to set slower speeds for the most affordable options? If so, it’s hard to argue that the ISP is delivering 100/100 Mbps broadband everywhere. If the agencies awarding grants can’t demand affordable rates, perhaps they can demand that 100/100 Mbps is the slowest product that can be offered on a grant-subsidized network. Nobody is forcing ISPs to accept grant funding and other subsidies, but when they elect to take public money, it seems like there can be strings attached.

I also wonder if ISPs benefitting from a grant-subsidized network ought to have the ability to force customers into long-term contracts? It’s not hard to make the case that the public money paying for the network should justify public-friendly products and practices.

As a final note, this topic highlights another glaring shortfall of awarding subsidies through a reverse auction rather than through grants. With RDOF, the reverse auction determined the winner of the subsidy first, and then the FCC proceeded to find out the plans of the subsidy winners. There were no pre-determined rules for issues like rates that an RDOF winner was forced to accept as part of accepting the public money. Let’s not do that again.