Small providers stand up to (another) FCC rule

  • Industry groups are protesting the FCC’s Discrimination Order, which would require providers to submit more data on the communities they service

  • ACA Connects, NTCA and WISPA claimed there is no evidence that small providers are engaged in practices resulting in discriminatory impacts

  • The Small Company Coalition, another group rallying against federal regulation, spoke about the order with Fierce Telecom this week

Small broadband providers are once again rallying against federal regulation. 

This time, the FCC’s Discrimination Order is under fire. If approved the order would require providers to submit annual data to the Broadband Data Collection describing any large-scale broadband projects and the communities served by such projects.

It would also mean providers have to set up internal compliance programs that assess what communities are served by projects and whether the provider’s broadband-related policies and practices might "differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband based on a listed characteristic and without adequate technical or economic justification.”

This week ACA Connects, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) submitted joint comments on the Digital Discrimination order. They argued that the proposed rules are unnecessary and would incur regulatory costs and burdens "without any evidence that small providers are engaged in practices resulting in discriminatory impacts."

Together, the three groups represent more than 2,000 small broadband providers.

The Digital Discrimination rules, their comments noted, would divert small providers' limited human resources and investment from deployment to compliance with "burdensome and overbroad regulations." They also argued that the order imposes a "novel disparate-impact test that allows the FCC to micromanage a host of legitimate business practices," and "will deter innovation and investment in broadband."

Small providers band together

There is power in numbers, which could be why groups like WISPA, NTCA and ACA Connects often band together to protest broadband regulation. A letter protesting the letter of credit requirement for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, for example, had nearly 300 signatures.

Jim Kail, CEO of LHTC Broadband, a small carrier in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the letter of credit rule is just one example of how regulation can hamper equal opportunities for small broadband providers. Kail formed the Small Company Coalition in 2011, an association of around 10 rural local exchange carriers (RLECs). The coalition, he said, is a way to “hold the FCC accountable.”

Kail called the Commission’s Digital Discrimination Order “totally unnecessary, especially in rural areas,” and said it shouldn’t apply to smaller providers. “We know our customers, our customers know us. Most of our employees live and work in the communities that we serve,” he told Fierce Telecom this week. “And if they got issues with their service, we do our best to take care of it because if we don't, we're gonna hear about it.”

While large companies with millions of customers might prompt rules like this one, the FCC “doesn't distinguish” between the different circumstances for a company like LHTC Broadband, Kail said, adding, “Why would they impose these rules like a cookie cutter that applies to everybody?”

Different rules, same story

Complaints over government regulation, especially in the context of small companies, is nothing new.

“Small companies have a long history of doing what we need to do,” said Kail. “And the FCC has a long history of interfering and making it harder to do what we do with unnecessary regulations.”

He noted to get grants administered by the U.S. Rural Utilities Service, the agency essentially “dictates how you have to run your business. But a lot of what is required is over the top.”

In another example, the NTCA and WISPA have urged the FCC to leave them out of some net neutrality rules, after the Commission proposed to reinstate the rules, which were in place for two years before being repealed in 2017. 

The BEAD program has also faced skepticism over whether it offers an even playing field for small providers. Last month Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, expressed concerns about bureaucratic hurdles for rural companies applying for BEAD grants. "I’m concerned that a number of [NTCA] members might look at this program and say it's too administrative, it’s too burdensome, there are too many rules, there are too many hoops to jump through,” Bloomfield said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was pressured to provide alternatives to BEAD’s letter of credit requirement after advocates said it would block small and community-centered ISPs, minority and women-owned providers, nonprofits and municipalities.

Kail noted that other BEAD requirements, including paying prevailing wages and certain EPA studies that need to be done to approve projects under the program, just might not be feasible for smaller providers.

Small providers have also had qualms over the FCC requiring more data from ISPs for broadband “nutrition labels.” Providers and associations have said that proposed additional rules regarding the labels would place undue burden on small providers and would not improve data.

Kail sees the nutrition labels as another “useless regulation.” In the case of his company, at least, he said a majority of customers aren't even going to understand the labels. Instead, if they have questions about their service, “They're gonna call us or they're gonna stop in our office. So we’ve gotta go through all these gyrations, for what?" he said.