Today was a fabulous way to start the second week of the new year with the heads up that a draft order, recon order and notice of proposed rulemaking is now circulating among the FCC commissioners to address Universal Service Fund shortfalls and would address in part NTCA’s petition for reconsideration on sufficiency issues.
This action is extremely critical and timely given that the high-cost Universal Service Fund (USF) is foundational to any effort to promote and sustain rural broadband – it enables the business case for network investment and the delivery of quality services at affordable rates for millions of rural Americans. Broadband deployment has been a key topic as Congress and the Administration continue to press their support for inclusion of broadband in any possible infrastructure efforts. In recent years, insufficient support has undermined the effectiveness of the USF programs, leading to network investments being delayed or denied and higher rates and lower broadband speeds for rural consumers, all at a time when it is clear that our country and the United States economy would benefit from more robust deployment. And to be clear, broadband deployment will take more than streamlined procedures – it will take funding, support and cost recovery to be impactful.
Today’s proposal from Chairman Pai with respect to support levels represents an important, long-needed step to put the USF programs back on track toward achievement of the statutory goals of universal service.
As I noted to the communications media today, NTCA is deeply grateful to Chairman Pai for his continuing engagement with rural consumers and providers, and for his commitment to rural America as reflected in today’s announcement. All of his efforts touring rural broadband locations over the course of this past year – meeting with providers and hearing their challenges – along with his own personal understanding of rural America has helped lead to the policy next steps (and possible next steps) outlined today. We look forward to working with the Chairman and his fellow FCC commissioners, including Commissioner O’Rielly who has stayed at the USF table to see the initial reforms through, to ensure that a sufficient and predictable high-cost USF mechanism delivers more effectively on the promise of universal service for the benefit of all Americans.
Chairman Pai’s announcement is available online. Concerns with respect to the insufficiency of USF support have long been NTCA’s top public policy priority, underscored by a June 2017 survey of NTCA’s membership detailing the impacts of the USF budget cuts on the ability of rural providers to serve their customers. It was distressing to see so many rural broadband providers having to make the difficult decisions that entailed not bringing broadband to remote and high cost areas that they had planned to serve prior to the USF budget cuts. The survey results are available online.
While this is another step in the journey, it’s a step in the right direction and we will continue to engage our members and the hundreds of members of Congress who have made Universal Service a national priority for rural America.