The FCC and USF

The FCC quietly won two court cases over the last month that most folks have not heard about. A group of complainants brought a suit against the FCC, saying that the agency didn’t have explicit direction from Congress for the creation of the Universal Service Fund (USF) or the authority to delegate the operation of the USF to a third party. Years ago, the FCC prompted the creation of the non-profit firm Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to administer the day-to-day operations of the $10 billion fund.

The plaintiffs pleaded that the FCC didn’t have the constitutional authority to create the Universal Service Fund since that was not specifically spelled out by Congress. Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the FCC was violating the nondelegation doctrine, a legal principle that says that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers to other entities.

The first ruling was issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the ruling came down squarely on the side of the FCC. The Court said that Section § 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had given the FCC explicit authority to advance and preserve universal telecommunications service and that the agency’s decision to create the USF falls under that authority given to the FCC by Congress. A similar decision was recently reached by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Universal Service Fund has always been controversial, and this is not the first challenge to its authority. There are a lot of people who don’t think the FCC should effectively have the power to levy a tax on telecommunications services, the primary tool for funding the USF. The FCC is careful to call this a fee, but to folks who pay it, the distinction between a fee and a tax is hard to see.

The Courts also upheld the FCC’s right to delegate the administration of the Universal Service Fund to USAC. The courts noted that USAC is purely administrative and doesn’t have any authority to create rules. The rulings found that USAC makes proposals to the FCC on ideas for using the fund – ideas the FCC is free to ignore.

If the FCC had lost these cases, it would have been devastating to some highly popular programs. The most popular is probably the Schools and Libraries (E-Rate) program, where the FCC subsidizes fast Internet connection for schools that have a high percentage of low-income students. The USF also administers subsidies to get broadband to rural healthcare facilities and the Lifeline program that provides a discount on broadband bills.

Probably the most controversial use of the USF is the Connect America Fund which provides subsidies to support rural broadband. The fund was used for the CAF II program that was supposed to improve rural DSL for the largest telcos – at a time when DSL was already obsolete and copper wire maintenance was nonexistent. This money was used to create the often-criticized RDOF program that held a reverse auction for funds to support rural broadband. The FCC has been studying the use of the fund to build more rural cell towers.

The FCC is not entirely out of the woods, and there is one more similar challenge to its authority pending in the 11th Circuit Court. Historically, strong rulings like the first two would limit the chance of a different ruling in another court. However, it seems lately that courts are more independently making decisions that are not based on prior rulings.

It would be an interesting scenario if the FCC’s authority to operate the USF is ended. All current broadband subsidies would likely come to a screeching halt. It’s likely that at least a few states would leap in and fill such a void, but that would mean a plethora of subsidy programs by states – which also could be challenged. But it would also likely mean that many states would do nothing.

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