Expanding the Universal Service Fund

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress that would expand the size of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund by adding a fee on top of broadband bills. This fund is currently funded by fees added to landline telephone and cellular bills. The USF assessment on Interstate traffic recently increased to 26.5% – which is an extraordinarily high tax.

The bill was introduced by Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska). Also sponsoring the bill are T.J. Cox (D-Cal.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), Luis Correa (D-Cal.) Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), Ed Case (D- Hawaii), and Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas).

I’ve been advocating this for a decade because the Universal Service Fund is the FCC’s only tool to tackle the rural broadband issue. The USF already does a lot of good. The Fund is used to bring affordable gigabit broadband to schools. It’s used to bring affordable broadband to rural health care facilities. And even though the FCC keeps fighting it, the USF is used to hold down broadband bills for low-income households, with the Lifeline program that makes ISPs whole for providing lower prices.

In the past the Fund was used to fund two large-dollar broadband expansion projects – one successful and one a total bust. The successful program was ACAM, which has provided the funding to build rural fiber networks by small telcos. I see people around the industry praising the rural broadband in states like North and South Dakota – and that fiber was largely funded by the ACAM program.

Unfortunately, the USF doesn’t always get used wisely. This was the source of funding for the CAF II program that handed $11 billion to the big telcos to ostensively upgrade rural broadband speeds to 10/1 Mbps. It appears that money was largely frittered away or pocketed by the telcos because it’s still hard to find rural households with DSL speeds of 10/1 Mbps. The entire project basically shoveled billions to the bottom line of the telcos.

The Universal Service Fund is about to be used again in big ways. USF is the source of the $16.4 RDOF grants that will be awarded later this year, with another $4 billion to be awarded next year. Assuming this reverse auction doesn’t go cockeyed by awarding money to satellite providers instead of fiber networks, then this will be the biggest boost to rural broadband ever. I’ve been working with a lot of ISPs planning to use this money to build fiber in rural counties all over the country.

The Universal Service Fund is also the source of the proposed $9 billion 5G Fund with a goal of bringing cellular coverage to everybody in the US. Again, assuming the FCC does this right, this would make it a lot easier to live in rural America. Done poorly, this could instead line the pockets of the giant cellular companies.

What nobody is talking about is that those two programs – the RDOF grants and the 5G Fund will use all of the dry powder in the Universal Service Fund. These programs will both award funding over 10 years, and if we don’t find a new source of funding, there will be no additional big grants coming from the USF for the next decade.

What’s even scarier is that the revenues into the Universal Service Fund are dropping as people continue to drop landline telephones. Without some bolstering, there is no assurance that future FCCs will be able to meet the obligations to the recipients of the RDOF and 5G grants.

The revenue impact of imposing a $1 fee on broadband connections is gigantic. There are currently around 106 million broadband customers in the US. A $1 monthly fee on broadband would add $1.3 billion annually to the USF, or over $13 billion over the next decade. That would allow for another big rural broadband grant program.

The members of Congress sponsoring this bill seem to trust the FCC to disperse grant funding. Honestly, their track record on choosing winning grants is mixed. There are also plenty of policy people who think we should take every step possible to keep broadband affordable and that even a $1 monthly fee helps to push broadband out of the affordability range for homes.

If the Universal Service Fund is not expanded, then the only other source for funding rural broadband is Congress. There is a lot of talk about broadband funding coming out of the various COVID-19 stimulus packages. But if that doesn’t happen, we are likely facing an economy with a lot of problems for the next few years. In that environment, rural broadband funding might get shuttled behind other priorities.

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