December 4, 2020 — Broadband industry leaders on Thursday called for the Federal Communications Commission to modernize Universal Service Fund programs, and highlighted other steps critical to making broadband affordable and available to all Americans, speaking during a US Telecom forum.
“Affordability is a problem,” said John McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications, “35 percent of households which bring in less than $30,000 a year don’t have fast internet service.” McElfresh noted that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends toward broadband inequality.
“This is just a preview of what lies ahead,” he said, “everything relies on broadband.”
Panelists throughout the event stressed the need to revisit the Universal Service Fund, a system of telecommunications subsidies managed by the FCC, intended to promote universal access to telecommunications services in the United States.
The program, created before the advent of modern broadband technology, originally operated as a mechanism by which interstate long distance carriers were assessed to subsidize telephone service to low-income households and high-cost areas.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which officially established the USF and placed its administration under the charge of the Federal Communications Commission and an agency that it created, expanded the traditional definition of universal service.
In particular, the traditional definition of universal service as affordable, nationwide telephone service was expanded to include broadband support via the E-Rate Program to eligible schools and libraries.
How speakers said the Universal Service Fund program needs to change
With broadband emerging as the new standard communication medium, many believe the FCC should transition the USF to subsidize broadband.
McElfresh called further for a change in the funding mechanism of USF, currently based on fees on telecommunications-based services. “Revenue from these services is declining and it isn’t working,” he said, adding that the current system penalizes wireline customer and is difficult to access.
Broadband experts agree that a lack of broadband data stands in the way of achieving universal service.
“We need to pinpoint the problem,” said McElfresh, who detailed that the Broadband DATA Act, which requires the FCC issue rules relating to the collection of broadband availability data, was enacted in March, but has yet to be fully funded by Congress.
While the industry leaders agreed on solutions to broadband data, affordability and adoption issues, they held different views on what the roles of public and private entities are when it comes to investing in infrastructure.
While the AT&T CEO championed the light-touch regulatory approach the Trump FCC has practiced, saying it “has served our country well,” panelist Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that when it comes to solving the lack of infrastructure issue, he doesn’t believe “that industry can bridge this gap alone.”
“The government needs to make those investments,” said Pallone, calling for government and industry to work together. Pallone noted the status of House Democrat’s Moving Forward Act, which authorizes $80 billion to build and upgrade broadband infrastructure, and which is currently stuck in the Senate.
Pallone, who has been very critical of the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai, said he believes part of the problem is that the current FCC “acted as if state and local entities are the enemy, and preempted what they have done, rather than working with them.”
Pallone called for more cooperation and coordination between federal, state and local government.
In a panel that took place after McElfresh and Pallone gave keynote speeches, broadband champions called for strengthening the social contract of what it means to be connected. They further argued that a lack of infrastructure itself remains the largest barrier to connecting the approximate 21 million Americans who remain unversed.
“We need more players in the market,” said Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center for Technology at Brookings Institute, finding that increased competition will be the key to driving investment in infrastructure.
Turner Lee also called for the FCC to abandon incremental pay models, saying Americans need funding for these initiatives immediately.
FCC Encouraged to Limit Data Collection on Affordable Connectivity Program, Others Want More
One trade group warns about providers leaving the program if data collection too onerous.
WASHINGTON, August 9, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is being warned not to overly burden internet service providers with its Congress-mandated order to collect pricing and subscription rates data from participants in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is required by November 15 to adopt rules to collect annual data relating to the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering by a provider participating in the broadband subsidy program, which offers up to $30 per month for low-income households (up to $75 per month on tribal lands) and a one-time $100 off a device.
But a number of submissions are warning the FCC against rules that require any additional data collection efforts beyond the scope of the law so as not to unduly burden providers and, at least one other trade group said, push providers away from participating in the program.
Telecommunications company Lumen, for example, recommended the commission limit the scope of the annual reporting to monthly pricing and to exempt “excessively granular” requirements, such as promotional rates, grandfathered plans, or subscriber-level data, which the commission is proposing to collect.
Communications companies and industry groups want to limit data collection
T-Mobile said in its submission that Congress told the FCC to rely on the broadband consumer labels, which are due this November, for pricing. The commission asked for comment on the interpretation of the IIJA requiring a reliance on price information displayed on the consumer labels.
For subscription information, T-Mobile urges the commission to look at data collection from the Universal Service Administrative Company – which administers high-cost broadband programs for the Universal Service Fund – to avoid “adopting a largely redundant collection that would impose additional burdens” on all parties.
“The IIJA leaves the Commission no discretion to collect any additional price information, and the statute does not require collection of data on other service plan and network characteristics,” such as speed and latency and data allowances, the submission said.
“Collection of this additional data would create additional burdens and is unnecessary,” the submission added.
Similar limitations were also proposed by telecom Starry Inc., which pushed for privacy protection by collecting data at a higher level (such as the state) and working with information collected in other transparency efforts, such as the consumer labels.
Industry association IMCOMPAS, which represents internet and competitive communications networks, told the FCC in a submission that data collection should be limited to the state level to protect consumer privacy and proprietary information of the providers; streamline other data collection, including the consumer labels; and provide instruction on how to providers to better understand the data collection rules.
Concurring with this position is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which said data collection must be simple and should not go to a level of detail that goes beyond what the IIJA calls for. The trade group, which represents small providers, said such data collection beyond that required in the law could burden companies with small teams.
The included data, WISPA said, should be an annual aggregate of items including broadband plans subscribed to by ACP customers, number of subscribers for each plan, and pricing minus promotional rates, taxes, discounts or pricing breakdowns for bundled services. Any additional onerous collection could see providers leave the program, it added.
Industry groups US Telecom and NCTA – Internet and Television Association similarly urged a simple annual report that captured undiscounted monthly pricing of each broadband service offering and the number of customers subscribed. The Competitive Carriers Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also recommended a limited data collection approach.
ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized independent operators, said the FCC should direct providers to report numbers of ACP households “that are applying their benefit to each speed tier along with the standard price of each tier on a state-by-state basis” – rather than the FCC-proposed continuous collection of subscriber-level data via the National Lifeline Accountability Database, it said, adding the commission should be mindful of the time it takes for completion, as smaller providers have limited resources.
Others pushing for subscriber-level, more data
The cities of New York and Seattle, in their submissions, said the FCC should collect subscriber-level information to assess different service adoption rates on different plans over time – publishing categories based on price, plan and performance by the zip code. It added it is not seeking information about the households itself, and said this would not be a privacy concern as others have pointed out.
Similarly, the Connecticut Office of State Broadband said the commission should go beyond the IIJA requirements by mandating information including performance of the plans and whether a device is offered.
For the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, data collection on the ACP should include data beyond what’s included in the consumer labels, and should include other items such as installation, equipment, service, miscellaneous, data and usage fees, and state and local taxes.
In a joint submission, non-profit media group Common Sense and internet advocacy group Public Knowledge recommended data collection that is necessary to monitor the ACP, which include promotional rates, taxes, overage costs and device and equipment costs. This way, they say, the FCC can get a better idea of how much is going toward internet access after applying the subsidy. They are also asking for the commission to collect information on whether the subsidy is being used to upgrade or discount current service, and how customers are becoming aware of the program.
The commission is currently trying to get more Americans on the program, which has over 13 million households signed up. That number, the commission said last week, should be much higher. As such, it ordered the development of an outreach program to market the subsidy.
Universal Service Fund in Need of Reform, Said Panelist at Broadband Community Summit Event
The Universal Service Fund’s base is shrinking.
HOUSTON, May 3, 2022 – As funding for the Universal Service Fund continues to fall year over year, the Federal Communications Commission is evaluating options to reform it.
During Broadband Communities Summit 2022, Principal Consultant for Mattey Consulting LLC, Carol Mattey anticipated what kind of changes to the Universal Service Fund that stakeholders could expect in the coming years.
The Universal Service Fund is responsible for funding several high-profile financial benefits including the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Connect America Fund, E-Rate, the Lifeline Program, and the Rural Healthcare Program.
The USF is funded through compulsory service provider contributions. Though those contributions have historically been based on providers’ interstate and international telecommunications service revenues, critics of the program argue that providers are increasingly able to dodge these contributions by reclassifying their sources of revenue.
A common misconception for dwindling contributions is cord cutting, Mattey said. As more people drop landlines, there is simply less voice revenue – but that is only part of the issue.
Mattey said that while information revenues have increased through consumer use of the internet, voice revenues have fallen. This disparity has caused the telecommunication contribution to skyrocket and could be nearly 30 percent in 2022.
Mattey explained that most companies simply bill their consumers to offset that amount, and as a result, the contribution has been disproportionately burdened by the elderly who are more likely to use landlines.
When addressing potential reforms, Mattey pointed to three most likely possibilities being considered: broadband internet access revenue, a flat fee per voice and broadband connection, and a flat fee per phone number.
“Any reform needs to be simple and must be able to be audited,” she said. “The current system is not equitable.”
Petition Challenges Constitutionality of Roles FCC, USAC Play in Universal Service Fund
The legal brief comes at a time when the FCC studies the future of the fund.
WASHINGTON, April 19, 2022 – A petition filed last week is requesting a U.S. appeals court find unconstitutional the process by which the Universal Service Fund is funded and how its administration has been delegated.
The petitioners, including non-profit research house Consumers’ Research and communications service provider Cause Based Commerce Inc., plead to the U.S. court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that Congress handed the Federal Communications Commission under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 unfettered delegatory authority to raise revenues for the roughly $8-billion annual program that seeks to expand basic telecommunications services across the country – including to low-income Americans, schools and libraries and rural healthcare.
That offloading of duties with “no formula, ceiling, or other meaningful or objective restrictions” is contrary to the nondelegation doctrine, the petitioners argue, which is a Constitutional limit that does not allow Congress to delegate to other branches its own legislative authority.
“The Framers [of the Constitution] understood ‘that it would frustrate ‘the system of government ordained by the Constitution’ if Congress could merely announce vague aspirations and then assign others the responsibility of adopting legislation to realize its goals,” the petition read.
Congress has improperly given taxation powers and inappropriately delegated power to a private entity, petitioners argue
The petitioners, who name the FCC as a respondent, argue that because the money raised for the fund comes from telecommunications companies, which often pass those costs down to customer voice service bills, Congress has effectively given the FCC taxation powers – a solely legislative authority.
Additionally, they argue that the FCC itself is in violation of the nondelegation doctrine by outsourcing the administration of the USF to a private entity called the Universal Service Administrative Company, which announces the amount needed to be obtained every quarter to meet the fund’s objectives. They argue that because the process for determining the amount and the FCC’s approval of it happens “only days before the new quarter begins,” the FCC has “no option” but to approve whatever USAC says.
“This unaccountable state of affairs has unsurprisingly led to skyrocketing costs, with the contribution rate quintupling since 2002, as well as rampant waste, fraud, and abuse,” the petition said, referring to the percent of voice service revenues that must be collected to support the program.
In one quarter last year, the contribution percentage reached a record high of 33.4 percent of declining voice revenues. Advocates for the USF have been calling for a more sustainable model for the fund, including broadening the contribution base to include broadband revenues and big tech platforms, with others calling for scrapping all that and just adding the required amount from a congressional budget item.
As such, the petitioners say the USF should be floated by money from federal revenues.
“If Congress believes these programs are worthy of funding, it should have to endure the public scrutiny and beneficial debate of raising money and proposing an appropriation for them,” the petition said. “But “[b]y shifting responsibility to a less accountable branch, Congress protects itself from political censure—and deprives the people of the say the framers intended them to have.”
Some argue that general taxation revenues should fund the Universal Service Fund
Advocates of general taxation for the fund, including AT&T and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, have often pointed to the added benefit of having congressional oversight to minimize fraud and abuse.
The petitioners have the support of non-profit technology think tank TechFreedom, which filed a brief with the court to boost the position. TechFreedom had by then already submitted comments to the FCC on its study of the future of the USF, arguing that the money should come from general taxation and that the FCC “cannot unilaterally” expand the fund to include contributions from big technology platforms. The FCC’s consultation included a question about that jurisdiction question, with parties including affordable communications advocate Public Knowledge and Carol Mattey, who urged the expansion of the fund to include broadband revenues, arguing that the FCC has jurisdiction to expand the base because it’s in the public interest.
“This double delegation – and, worse, private delegation – has led to lax oversight, runaway budgets, wasteful spending, and outright fraud,” alleged TechFreedom in its brief.
“It was bad enough that Congress handed such broad and ill-defined regulatory power to an independent agency – a government entity not subject to direct control by democratically elected leadership,” TechFreedom said, adding for the FCC to pass that power over to USAC without Congress’s permission “means that the USF is not subject to any congressionally established procedural guardrails.”
TechFreedom furthers its complaint by arguing that USAC directors “are not properly appointed” and the FCC’s “rubber-stamping of USAC’s proposals violates the Administrative Procedure Act.”
The free markets non-profit the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the think tank the Free State Foundation also filed a joint brief with other professors and institutes arguing that the administration of the USF has effectively usurped Congress’s power to levy taxes via the ability of service providers to pass down the cost of the fund to consumers.
“The Constitution does not permit Congress to circumvent the legislative process by allowing an independent agency (guided by a private company owned by an industry trade group) to raise and to spend however much money it wants every quarter for ‘universal service’ at the expense of every American who pays a monthly phone bill,” the joint submission said.
Intervenors named in the case – who are not parties to it but can submit comments to help the court – include the Benton Institute, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the Center for Media Justice, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, and the Competitive Carriers Association.
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