FCC Could Adopt a Major Office, Condo Broadband Choice Rule


Chances are that if you live in a multi-unit residential tower or community with a homeowners’ association or spend time in an office building, your choices for broadband services are, well, none — there’s one provider, thanks to contractual arrangements and legacy wiring and provider limitations that in many cases are a thing of the past.

The Chairwoman of the FCC wants to do something about that, and on Friday shared with her colleagues a Report and Order and Declaratory Ruling that she argues would promote competition and increase choice for broadband services for people living and working in multiple tenant environments (MTEs).

As Jessica Rosenworcel sees it, the measures, if adopted, would halt practices that “evade long-existing FCC rules intended to allow tenants to choose their own provider.”

How a multi-dwelling resident or worker can do so is likely a question on many a person’s minds. From apartment complexes to large retirement communities and multistory condos, HOA agreements with a single broadband services provider — one that also offers television and phone services — is most often the rule, not the exception. Sometimes, the cost of the services is rolled in to a HOA payment. A renter of an apartment building may receive internet and cable as part of a lump-sum monthly payment.

Rosenworcel wants to do away with this, opening how consumers connect to the internet — more important than ever for radio and TV broadcasters, given smart speakers and AVOD/OTT/FAST Channel proliferation — to the provider of their choice.

Of course, there are limitations to this. For example, some consumers, regardless of whether they live in a multi-unit dwelling or a farmhouse, may not have multiple choices of service providers. In Ulster County, N.Y., Charter Communications’ Spectrum is the only MVPD offering a total in-home plan. Other companies in the region, including Altice USA’s Optimum and Comcast’s Xfinity, couldn’t simply waltz in to the Mid-Hudson Valley, effectively ending what some would call a legacy monopoly — could they?

While rural areas may be more of a challenge for what Rosenworcel seeks, there are perhaps more immediate solutions in urban and suburban areas.

“With more than one-third of the U.S. population living in apartments, mobile home parks, condominiums, and public housing, it’s time to crack down on practices that lock out broadband competition and consumer choice,” Rosenworcel said.  “Consumers deserve access to a choice of providers in their buildings.  I look forward to having my colleagues join me in lifting the obstacles to competitive choice for broadband for the millions of tenants across the nation.”

To promote broadband competition and deployment in multiple tenant environments (MTEs), the Order and Declaratory Ruling, if adopted by a vote of the full Commission, would prohibit providers from entering into graduated revenue sharing agreements or exclusive revenue sharing agreements with a building owner.

That’s something commonly seen in some communities.

The Order and Declaratory Ruling would also require providers to disclose to tenants “in plain language” the existence of exclusive marketing arrangements that they have with building owners; and put an end to a practice Rosenworcel says “circumvents” the FCC’s cable inside wiring rules by clarifying that existing Commission rules prohibit sale-and-leaseback arrangements that effectively block access to alternative providers.

While ACA Connects, the association representing small and independent MVPDs, did not immediately comment on Rosenworcel’s announcement, an ACA Connects representative pointed to comments submitted to the FCC as part of its proceeding leading up to the Chairwoman’s decision. In those comments, ACA Connects says it “recognizes that – for any number of reasons, including some that the Commission may lack jurisdiction to address – some MTEs may have limited or low-quality broadband options. There may be opportunities for Commission intervention that would improve broadband access and competition within such MTEs. Yet in pursuing such measures, the Commission must be careful not to disrupt service arrangements in other MTEs that are delivering significant value to residents and businesses. To strike this balance, we encourage the Commission to identify with precision any competitive deficiencies in this marketplace—which may be limited to certain geographic areas or types of MTEs—and to craft solutions that are narrowly tailored to addressing any such problems. Given the complex ecology of the MTE marketplace, it would be unwise for the Commission to adopt hard-and-fast rules
against any broad category of practice – e.g., revenue sharing or exclusive marketing –
that may take different forms in different marketplace contexts.”

As such, ACA Connects urged the FCC to proceed “more cautiously and incrementally, such as by adopting disclosure requirements that make various service arrangements more transparent.”

The proposal from Rosenworcel, in her view, “builds upon a 30-year record of Commission proceedings to promote competition in apartment buildings and other MTEs, including a long-standing ban on exclusive access contracts.”

Most recently, the Commission issued a Public Notice in September 2021 inviting a new round of comments in a proceeding examining competitive access to broadband in apartment and office buildings.  “The record revealed a pattern of new practices that inhibit competition, contrary to the Commission’s goals, and limit opportunities for competitive providers to offer service for apartment, condo and office building unit tenants,” the FCC says.  “These practices could throttle consumer access to providers participating in the Commission’s affordable broadband programs such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit and its successor, the Affordable Connectivity Program.”