The Federal Communications Commission has begun a proceeding to figure out the future of the Universal Service Fund, which is funded through a slice of telecom carriers’ revenues that is passed along to consumers through line-item bill charges.
Congress directed the agency to start such a proceeding in light of the massive amount of funding being poured into broadband — $65 billion — as a result of the recently passed Infrastructure Act, and ask for input on the implications of that funding on the goals of universal service and on existing programs.
The FCC said that it would propose that its goals for “universal service” be defined as “universal deployment, affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access to broadband throughout the United States.”
Among the questions that the agency wants input on:
-How will the Infrastructure Act impact the high-cost service program, which has typically subsidized the capital cost of deployments in hard-to-serve areas? Should that program be changed to support ongoing operating costs?
-With the Infrastructure Act funds coming, what should be the next steps for the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF) program?
-How is the Lifeline subsidy program likely to be impacted by recent funding, and does it need to be changed? The Infrastructure Act includes a new Affordable Connectivity Program that essentially sustains the Emergency Broadband Benefit that was created during the pandemic to help families afford the cost of broadband.
-What would a more predictable and sustainable USF funding mechanism look like, in light of the funding coming to broadband, and what congressional action could the FCC recommend?
In a statement on the new proceeding, Commissioner Brendan Carr said that USF is “stuck in a death spiral” and “funded through a mechanism that made sense back in the dial up and screeching modem days of the 1990s—back when you were far more likely to have a long-distance calling card in your wallet than an email address.”
Carr has proposed that large technology companies such as Google and Facebook, as well as streaming services, start paying “a fair share” into USF. “After all, large technology companies are reaping trillions of dollars of revenues off of the networks that are supported and in many cases only exist because of USF expenditures,” he said, adding, “It is time to end this free ride.”