Rural operators cheer, cable cos jeer proposed A-CAM changes

Telecom is a sea of acronyms, but there’s one that you may have seen or heard a bit more lately: A-CAM. Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox Communications all met with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials earlier this month to discuss A-CAM issues. But what the heck is A-CAM, and why does the industry care?

A-CAM refers to the FCC’s Alternative Connect America Model program, which supports broadband deployments in eligible high-cost areas. The program is divided into two award phases: support which was granted under the original program founded in 2016 (A-CAM I) and that allocated during a second round in 2018 (A-CAM II).

Each phase has its own service and deployment requirements. A-CAM I mandates speeds of only 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream and runs through 2026. A-CAM II raises this bar to 25/3 Mbps in exchange for an additional two years of support. As of May 2022, the FCC said the total amount of support provided to A-CAM I and A-CAM II participants was $1.1 billion each year.

So why are operators so keen to talk about an old program already well underway? Because another extension is on the line, and a decision is expected soon.

In May 2022, the FCC called for input on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to see whether it should adopt changes to the A-CAM program suggested by the ACAM Broadband Coalition. The coalition is comprised of rural operators that accepted A-CAM support, including TDS Telecom, Great Plains Communications, Ritter Communications, Arvig and others.

The proposed changes would create an Enhanced A-CAM program by making three main changes. First, providers would be required to deploy service with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps to 90% of eligible locations. This would bring locations covered by the A-CAM program in line with the government’s definition of what counts as “served” under the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Second, it would raise the cap on support from $200 to $300 per location – a tweak that would raise the annual program cost to $1.49 billion per year. And third, it would extend the term of support by six years for most program participants.

TDS Telecom has been a vocal proponent of these changes as have NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband. In October, a group of a dozen U.S. Senators also urged the FCC to update the A-CAM program. However, not everyone is thrilled with the idea.

In a recent filing, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association said it, as well as representatives from Comcast, Charter and Cox, all recently met with the FCC by video to push back against the proposal. The parties argued that operators “have made significant investments” in rural expansions in recent years and that “expanding the ACAM programs by awarding incumbent LECs a sole-source contract, with no competitive bidding process, would be a poor policy choice.”

“NCTA urges the Commission to decline to expand the ACAM program,” the group wrote in a recap of its meeting. “However, if it does expand the program, the Commission should include language in the order to avoid the duplicative and wasteful universal service expenditures.”

It is unclear when exactly the FCC might take further action on the matter, but many are hoping for a decision soon.