FCC chairman Julius Genachowski spent a lot of his time on
the Hill Wednesday defending the FCC's reform of the Universal Service Fund,
specifically the decision to phase out support to areas with multiple
subsidized carriers or where there is an unsubsidized competitor.
That came in a House Small Business Committee hearing on
expanding that access, at which numerous legislators on both sides of the aisle
had heard from small businesses in their districts that faced the phase-out of
federal dollars. Their complaints included that the subsidy withdrawal could
kill their companies, that the case-by-case waiver process the FCC included was
burdensome and costly, and that the FCC's regression analysis model for capping
the fund was unreliable.
A feisty bordering on testy Genachowski (testy is as ruffled
as the chairman's cool, on-point demeanor gets in Hill hearings), pointed out,
as he has before, that there were going to be transition issues for some of the
companies as support was moved from those areas to unserved ones. He said the
FCC was currently considering nine or 10 waiver requests, that the FCC had made
that process as streamlined as possible, that filing requirements in terms of
paperwork included important financial information the FCC needed, and that the
waiver requests were for millions of dollars -- between $250 and $1,300 per sub
-- so the FCC needed to determine if they were justified.
He pointed out that it was the FCC's duty to make sure that
public money was going where it was most needed because if it was not there
would be less to go to other places -- fill in the name of the state his
interrogator represented. He also rejected the suggestion by one legislator
that the subsidy phase-out would drive companies out of business.
Also testifying were National Telecommunications & Information
Administration chief Larry Strickling and Rural Utilities Service (RUS)
administrator Jonathan Adelstein. Strickling and Adelstein's agencies oversee
billions in broadband deployment and adoption grants and loans.
One of the issues with the USF reform is that some RUS
broadband loans have been secured with money from the FCC's USF fund. One
legislator said a company had told them it was waiting to cash the RUS check
until it could figure out the impact of the USF reforms.
Adelstein said the agency had asked a number of grantees to
refile applications based on the USF changes.
Several legislators pointed to errors in the FCC's model for
calculating the USF funding cutbacks. Genachowski conceded it was not based on
perfect data, but on the best data available. He said the FCC was fixing
problems when they arose.
He also made the larger point that some people have argued
that the government should just stop the subsidies cold turkey. He disagreed,
but added that reform had been needed for years, that it did not happen, and
that the transition was challenging.
When one legislator suggested the imperfect model led to the
kind of unpredictability that hurt small business. Genachowski countered that
the FCC's previous inaction on reforms was itself unpredictability much of
which the FCC was now clearing up.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), was one of those relaying
constituent concerns about the reforms. She asked how much input the FCC had
gotten from rural carriers. The chairman pointed to written comments and
workshops across the country. He also said the FCC continued to work with
stakeholders to get input. He said the FCC's goals in reforming USF were to get
broadband to those who don't have it, to do so in a fiscally responsible way,
and to take into account business realities, like the impact on phasing out
subsidies. But he said that where money is going to subsidize service where
there is an unsubsidized competitor, there needs to be a transition. A fair
one, he said, which includes the waiver process, but to spend money in an
indefensible way rather than on unserved areas "did not make sense."
Genachowski said that the FCC would take action on special
access market reforms within the next several weeks.
The FCC has expanded its investigations into communications
failures during the recent MidAtlantic storms to include seeking comment more
broadly on reliable emergency communications. When asked about whether the FCC
would allow the importation of broadcast emergency info between markets, he did
not commit, but added there were communications failures of various media
during the storms.