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Lines Are Sharpening Over Who Drives the Future of Universal Service: Congress or Broadband Providers?

Big communications companies want Congress to tax telecom, while many others want higher fees on broadband service.

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Photo of panel moderator Julie Veach, Alex Minard, Greg Guice, and Angie Kronenberg at AnchorNets 2022.

CRYSTAL CITY, Va., October 14, 2022 – Should contributions to the Universal Service Fund originate from Congress or from fees paid by communications companies to an agency responsible to the Federal Communications Commission? A panel of experts speaking Friday at AnchorNets 2022 debated this issue.

The Universal Service Fund, created in 1997 to improve telecommunications connectivity nationwide, is funded primarily by voice-based services. In recent years, voice-based subscriptions have substantially dropped, creating a revenue crisis and leaving remaining voice-based customers to foot a climbing per-person USF bill.

To rectify this imbalance, industry players have proposed a variety of new funding sources. The two core options are direct taxation by Congress, or by broadening the base of the USF.

The latter option would require broadband providers to contribute to levies collected by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a non-profit entity accountable to the FCC.

Urging Need for FCC Action on Universal Service Fund, Expert Says Congress Too Slow

Speaking at the Friday conference of the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition, Greg Guice, director of government affairs at Public Knowledge, argued that the FCC has the legal authority to require broadband service providers to contribute to the USF.

“The language of the statute says every carrier shall contribute and any other provider of telecommunications that the Commission decides may contribute to Universal Service,” he said.

Angie Kronenberg, chief advocate and general counsel at industry trade group INCOMPAS, said Congress shouldn’t be relied upon for intervention: “It is very helpful when Congress recognizes that there is a problem and is willing to appropriate, but that is not a sustainable, predictable model.”

Petition Challenges Constitutionality of Roles FCC, USAC Play in Universal Service Fund

The USF has of late made substantial investments in broadband projects, and many industry experts say broadband services should be required to contribute thereto. In August, however, the FCC declined to unilaterally reform the fund’s contribution system and asked Congress to review the matter.

“On review, there is significant ambiguity in the record regarding the scope of the Commission’s existing authority to broaden the base of contributors,” the Commission’s report stated.

Alex Minard, vice president and state legislative counsel at NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, suggested Congress should be the driver of USF reform.

Policy Groups Want Bigger Contribution Base to Shore Up the Future of the Universal Service Fund

“Maybe the FCC does have the legal authority – maybe – to include broadband revenues,” said Minard. “If we’re going to…newly tax such a significant part of the economy, maybe it’s Congress that should be making this decision, and not an independent federal regulatory agency.”

Minard also argued the need for USF reform is less urgent than some believe. “It has been in crisis for 20 years,” he said. “What’s a little bit longer?”

Universal Service

Bill Would Require FCC to Make Rules on Expanding Funding Base of Universal Service Fund

The bill requires the FCC to study and reform the contribution base of the Universal Service Fund.

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Photo of the current FCC

WASHINGTON, March 29, 2023 – A bill introduced in both chambers Tuesday would require the Federal Communications Commission to study and make rules on expanding the funding base of the Universal Service Fund.

The Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act of 2023 – a previous version of which was introduced two years ago – would require the FCC within one year of the enactment of the bill to solidify rules to reform how the fund is supported and within 120 days to conduct a study on the need to broaden the fund’s base and submit the report to Congress.

The contents of the bill should include the “relative equities and burdens” of the changes on consumers, businesses and seniors, who often bear the brunt of the cost of support because the fund is currently supported by landlines.

The House version was introduced by Lizzie Fletcher, D-TX, Joe Neguse, D-CO, and Angie Craig, D-MN, and the Senate companion was introduced by Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and John Thune, R-S.D.

“Ensuring broadband service in the most remote, hardest-to-serve areas requires a sustainable Universal Service Fund with a sustainable funding formula,” Brandon Heiner, senior vice president of government affairs at industry association USTelecom, said in a statement. “Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) recognize that the contribution mechanism must be reformed to preserve connectivity for rural Americans. Directing the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to expand the contributions base will help secure the future of universal service.”

The bill’s introduction follows an FCC report to Congress that requested the legislative body provide the commission with the authority to change the fund’s contribution base.

The USF, which includes four high-cost programs supporting basic telecommunications services for institutions and low-income Americans, receives roughly $9 billion a year from voice service providers, whose revenue base has been dwindling for years.

The reliance on those providers has called into question the fund’s sustainability. Various experts have proposed different remedies, including expanding the base to include contributions from broadband service providers, large technology platforms, and from the general taxation pool.

Prior to the FCC’s report to Congress, some experts argued that the commission can unilaterally expand the fund’s base. Those same experts warned that Congress may take too long to implement necessary legislation.

On Friday, an appeals court denied a petition that challenged the FCC’s authority to raise funds and subdelegate the work of coming up with the quarterly contribution amounts providers must pay into it. The petition must go through two more levels of appeal.

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Universal Service

Appeals Court Denies Petition Challenging FCC Administration of Universal Service Fund

The matter is also in front of the 6th and 11th Circuit courts.

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WASHINGTON, March 27, 2023 – An appeals court ruled Friday that Congress provided sufficient guidance and limits on the Federal Communications Commission in its administration of the Universal Service Fund, turning away a petition that argued the agency was unjustly collecting arbitrary amounts from telecommunications service providers and was unduly delegating that collection to a private entity.

Early last year, non-profit research house Consumers’ Research and communications service provider Cause Based Commerce asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to find that Congress under Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave the FCC unfettered delegatory authority to raise revenues akin to taxation for the fund that provides basic telecommunications services and that the commission has illegally delegated that authority to a private entity known as the Universal Service Administration Company.

But the appeals court denied the petitioners’ points in a decision Friday, ruling that Congress provided sufficient guidance to the agency when administering the $9 billion fund, put in place guardrails to guide that administration, and that the FCC has sufficient oversight of USAC to allow for the subordination. In other words, the FCC is not deviating far from the guidance and the limits imposed on it by the legislative house, according to the court.

On the first point, the three-panel court ruled that – contrary to the petitioners’ claim – Section 254 offers specific guidance, such as offering affordable telecommunications services of decent quality, making it equitably available in rural and urban areas, and funded in an equitable and nondiscriminatory manner.

“Rather than leave the FCC with ‘no guidance whatsoever,’ Congress provided ample direction for the FCC in S 254,” the decision read, adding Congress chose to “confer substantial discretion” over the USF’s administration to the FCC.

On the FCC’s revenue-raising ability, the court also ruled that Section 254 provides adequate limits on that ability. Section 254 “certainly, did not leave the matter to the FCC ‘without standard or rule, to be dealt with as [it] pleased,’” the decision read. “Instead, § 254 requires that the FCC only raise enough revenue to satisfy its primary function.”

Those limits under the provisions of Section 254 include specific guardrails for the expenditure of those funds on telecommunications services that are essential, deployed in public networks by telecoms, and consistent with the public interest.

“Taken together, these provisions demonstrate that the FCC is not in the dark as to the amount of funding it should seek each quarter,” the decision said, referencing how much USAC needs to collect from the largely voice service providers to sustain the fund. “Instead, § 254 sets out the FCC’s obligations with respect to administration of the USF and the FCC, in turn, calculates what funds are necessary to satisfy its obligations.”

Finally, the petitioners argue that the FCC has violated the private nondelegation doctrine by giving authority of the USF over to USAC with no oversight, in part because the FCC only has 14 days to approve the amounts to be collected for the fund and thus rarely exercises its power to change the contribution amount. The petitioners’ argue that the combination of those factors make it so that USAC, not the FCC, administers the fund.

But the court disagreed on that point as well. First the court established that federal statutory law expressly subordinates USAC to the FCC, with the private entity not being able make policy or interpret provisions or the intent of Congress. Second, it said the FCC dictates how USAC calculates the contribution amount and reviews the calculation after the private entity makes a proposal. Third, it noted that those proposals made by the USAC must be approved by the FCC before they are required of the communications companies. Finally, the agency allows for challenges to USAC proposals and “often” grants those challenges, the court ruled.

Still more appeals to go

The court, however, ruled against an FCC argument that the petition is “time barred” because it was not brought when Section 254 was enacted by Congress. The court noted that constitutional challenges are allowed when the approval of contribution amounts by the FCC are applied to companies.

That said, the petitioners also filed appeals in the 6th and 11th Circuit courts on the matter.

“While we are disappointed that the three judge panel ruled against us, we are encouraged that they saw through the FCC’s absurd preliminary arguments, including that our case was not timely,” William Hild, executive director of petitioner Consumers’ Research, told Broadband Breakfast in a statement. “With the acknowledgement that our case is ripe and that we have standing, we will look forward to continuing the legal fight to defend consumers from the unconstitutional USF tax on their phone bills set by unelected bureaucrats.”

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, whose institutions are recipients of the fund’s money, also filed a brief in the case and said in a statement on Friday it was pleased with the decision.

“SHLB is extremely pleased that the court recognized the importance of the universal service program for the thousands of schools, libraries and health care providers that receive Universal Service Fund (USF) support,” said its executive director John Windhausen. “In the 1996 Telecom Act, Congress provided the FCC with both specific guidance and flexibility to adjust the USF program over time to embrace changes in the marketplace.

“With two more decisions to go, support for thousands of anchor institutions nationwide is still in jeopardy,” Windhausen added. “If the USF is ruled unconstitutional, it would put at risk the funding for four key programs: the Connect America Fund, Lifeline, Schools and Libraries (E-Rate), and Rural Health Care.”

Greg Guice, director of government affairs at advocacy group Public Knowledge, which filed a brief in the case, added “the Fifth Circuit has once again affirmed the importance of our nation’s universal service mission and the FCC’s obligation to ensure it is achieved by placing the program on a sound financial footing,” adding the organization hopes the other courts “take notice of this opinion and rule consistently.”

The National Lifeline Association, which advocates for the continuity of the USF program Lifeline, and industry association INCOMPAS also praised the decision. The latter added “we believe reforms to the USF are necessary to ensure this critical service can continue to exist.”

Those reform calls stem from concern that the fund is unsustainable because it is largely supported by voice service providers who have seen dwindling revenues as more Americans use other forms of communication.

The FCC has left it to Congress to provide it the authority to make changes to the fund for its long-term support, including possibly expanding the base to include broadband service providers and Big Tech.

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12 Days of Broadband

How Long Will it Take Congress to Revamp the Universal Service Fund?

Critics urged the FCC to expand the fund’s contribution sources, but the agency chose to punt the decision to Congress.

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Graphic courtesy of Dmitry Kovalchuk / Adobe Stock

From the 12 Days of Broadband:

The Federal Communications Commission this summer waived away the issue of revamping the Universal Service Fund, pointing to the need for Congress to give it the authority to make changes to the multi-billion-dollar fund that goes to support basic telecommunications services to low-income Americans and rural communities. 

Up to this point, the agency had a virtual megaphone to its ear with critics saying that it needs to make the changes necessitated by the fact that the nearly $9-billion fund this quarter is supported only by dwindling legacy voice service revenues as more Americans move over to broadband-driven communications services. 

 Download the complete 12 Days of Broadband report

Over the past year, the conversation over what to do with the fund has reached ever-increasingly levels of urgency. The contribution percentage — the tax on voice service providers that is often passed down to consumers — climbs with the demands of the fund. In other words, there is an inverse relationship with taxed revenues and the contribution percentage — the lower the voice revenues to draw from, the higher the percentage demanded from fund, which is adjusted by the Universal Service Administrative Company every quarter. 

Critics have urged the FCC to make significant expansions to the contribution sources of the fund, including taxing broadband revenues and forcing Big Tech to pay because they benefit from internet infrastructure. 

Still others — including AT&T — have recommended that Congress step in and have the funds come from general taxation, which was met with concern that the fund’s pot of money would fluctuate with constantly changing political personnel. 

Meanwhile, a bill that would require the FCC to study and report on the feasibility of having Big Tech pay into the fund made its way out of the Senate Commerce Committee in May. But nothing since. 

Hence the concern as to what the FCC did when it temporarily handed the hot potato over to Congress — how long will it take? 

Congress must move legislation forward, which takes months as it has other business to deal with. Even after the many months of bill passage, the FCC must draft its own proposal that must go through a public comment process. 

This was the concern of critics who said the FCC already has the legal authority to act unilaterally, without the intervention of Congress to get the process started. One of those critics includes Carol Mattey, former deputy chief of the FCC, who last year published a report saying the agency must expand the contribution base to include broadband revenues. 

Following the report’s publishing, Mattey and advocate Public Knowledge argued that the FCC has the legal authority to expand the base on its own. 

But in the FCC report to Congress on the USF this summer, the agency wasn’t so sure. 

“On review, there is significant ambiguity in the record regarding the scope of the Commission’s existing authority to broaden the base of contributors,” the report said.

“As such, we recommend Congress provide the Commission with the legislative tools needed to make changes to the contributions methodology and base in order to reduce the financial burden on consumers, to provide additional certainty for entities that will be required to make contributions, and to sustain the Fund and its programs over the long term.”

The deference to Congress pleased the two Republicans on the commission, Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington, both of whom — no less interested in the sustainability of the fund — preferred the legislative body make the determination.

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