Senate Looks at Universal Service Fund

Sen. Wicker signals closing rural divide is matter of life or death
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The Senate Communications Subcommittee Tuesday took a deep dive into the FCC's Universal Service Fund, with a focus on rural broadband deployment and telehealth.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)—chairman of the subcommittee and who has introduced a bill requiring the FCC to improve broadband data collection—said that "insuring broadband deployment to rural healthcare providers is a critical component of the USF program."

To that end, Wicker signaled that he and ranking member Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) were reintroducing the Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead (RURAL) on Telehealth Act, which would qualify some rural healthcare providers for USF funds. He said robust broadband connections are vital to the adoption of "lifesaving technology."

He also said the importance of delivering broadband to rural areas—Mississippi has a lot of them—cannot be understated, citing economic and digital innovation.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has promised that closing the digital divide, particularly the rural divide, is a priority. 

Sen. Schatz said that all Americans need the essential connection to broadband to fully participate in society, from applying for a job, doing homework, or accessing government services. He said the FCC's yearly broadband report demonstrates that millions of Americans (north of 30 million) lack access to high-speed broadband. "We can't close that divide without USF," he said.

He said the FCC should remain "vigilant" against waste fraud and abuse.

That was one of the reasons FCC chairman Ajit Pai cited in suspending the designation of nine telecoms as eligible for Lifeline USF subsidies, which are the subsidies for basic connectivity for low-income residents.

Schatz said the FCC needs to take into account unique geographical and topographical challenges—like those in his home state of Hawaii—that make broadband deployment particularly difficult and costly. 

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, told the legislators that the USF program's "viability and effectiveness" was "in peril" due to a flat budget.

She said that lack of money is leading to cancelled buildouts and layoffs. She then brought it home for chairman Wicker. "In Mississippi, instead of upgrades in Fulton, the only investments will be to remain operational."

She said the FCC should tap USF fund reserves if necessary to meet the shortfall or increase the contribution factor, by only the cost of a Starbucks coffee a year, she added. She said another option would be for Congress to direct some infrastructure money to the program.