Universal Service Fund

At the January Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) adopted a Public Notice (“PN”) that sets July 24, 2018 as the start of the Connect America Fund Phase II auction (“Phase II Auction”) in which service providers can compete for up to $1.98 billion annually in financial support over 10 years.  This will be the first time a reverse, multi-round auction is used to provide support for high-cost rural areas. The FCC also adopted an Order on Reconsideration (“Recon Order”) that resolves outstanding reconsideration petitions related to the Phase II Auction.

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The Rural Health Care Program (“RHCP”) is sure to face increased scrutiny in the wake of a $18.7 million proposed fine issued by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) at its January meeting against a telecommunications reseller for allegedly defrauding the program.  The FCC claims that DataConnex, one of the top five recipients of RHCP funding, violated the program’s competitive bidding rules and submitted falsified documents to increase the support it received.  The FCC recently ramped up enforcement involving the RHCP and proposed significant reforms last month aimed at improving oversight and deterring fraud.  The FCC’s actions potentially foreshadow additional restrictions on the use of RHCP consultants and the amount of available funding.


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E-Rate fraud is back in the spotlight following the indictment of a Dallas charter school CEO and the owner of a contracting company for an alleged kickback scheme resulting in over $300,000 in illegal subsidies. Federal prosecutors stated that the pair violated the E-Rate program’s competitive bidding requirements and submitted fraudulent invoices to the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”).  The indictment comes on the heels of major FCC settlements and enforcement actions against educational institutions and service providers for alleged E-Rate violations.  FCC Chairman Pai has repeatedly criticized the administration of the E-Rate program and the indictment may spur further calls for action to combat fraud in the program.

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At its last open meeting in 2017, the five FCC Commissioners unanimously voted to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Order regarding the Commission’s Rural Health Care (RHC) Program, a 20-year old initiative aimed at improving rural health care provider access to first telecommunications services and later an array of communications services, including Internet access, dark fiber, and business data services.  This item is part of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s overall initiative to close the “digital divide,” and proposes to increase the $400 million spending cap for the first time since 1997.  The NPRM also proposes to change how the FCC handles demand beyond the cap, from general proration to prioritization based on rurality or remoteness.  As such, all interested stakeholders should carefully monitor and consider participating in the rulemaking process.  Comments will be due 30 days after publication of the item in the Federal Register (which usually takes a few weeks) and reply comments will be due 60 days after publication.

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A notable trend under Chairman Pai’s leadership has become the FCC’s proactive willingness to modify its rules in light of recent natural disasters.  As discussed in our recent podcast, the FCC suspended or waived a number of regulatory requirements over the past few weeks for carriers affected by recent major weather events, including rules

On September 12, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission’s (Commission) Office of the Managing Director (OMD) released a Public Notice proposing a universal service fund (USF) contribution factor of 18.8% for fourth quarter 2017.  This proposed contribution factor would be the highest rate since the USF program’s inception and likely reflects the impact of the declining USF contribution base.
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At its August Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a Public Notice (“Notice”) that addresses the procedures for its upcoming Connect America Fund (“CAF”) Phase II auction (“Auction” or “Auction 903”), scheduled to begin in 2018. Auction 903 will be a competitive reverse auction wherein service providers will compete for up to $1.98 billion in financial support as part of an ongoing effort by the FCC to revise the high cost universal service support program. The Notice seeks comment on the FCC’s proposed process for how an applicant can become qualified to participate in the Auction, how bidders will submit bids, and how bids will be processed to determine winners and assign support amounts. Comments are due by September 18, 2017 and reply comments are due by October 18, 2017.

The Auction is the second part of CAF Phase II. The initial part of CAF Phase II occurred in 2015, when ten price cap carriers accepted offers of support calculated by a cost model in exchange for the providers’ commitment to deploy and maintain voice and broadband service in high cost areas. Service providers that seek to participate in the Auction will bid on providing service to eligible high cost areas including those areas where incumbent price cap carriers declined the support calculated by the cost-model. In 2016, the FCC adopted the Phase II Auction Order, which established the rules for the Auction’s bidding process including the bidder performance obligations, application mechanism, bidder eligibility criteria, eligible areas, and post-auction obligations. More recently, in March 2017, the FCC adopted bidding weights for the different performance category tiers for Auction 903 (as previously discussed here). The Notice takes final steps towards executing the Auction by resolving specific details of the mechanics established in these earlier proceedings.


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When Ajit Pai was a Commissioner, he was a frequent critic of the FCC’s enforcement practice.  Now that Chairman Pai has led the FCC for six months, his approach to enforcement is coming into better focus.  In this episode of Kelley Drye’s Full Spectrum podcast, Kelley Drye enforcement attorneys Steve Augustino and Brad Currier discuss

Below is Kelley Drye’s preview of the items under consideration at the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s or Commission’s) upcoming monthly Open Meeting, to be held on August 3, 2017. Consistent with the trend since he took over the Commission, Chairman Ajit Pai continues to schedule a large number of items.  Indeed, for the seventh month in a row, the Commission has six or more items on its agenda.  This month, the agenda consists of eight items and has several items taking concrete steps to resolve proceedings or important questions presented to the Commission.  The areas covered skew heavily toward broadband deployment, with a CAF Phase II item, a Mobility Fund item and several spectrum items.  In addition, the Commission again has enforcement items on the agenda:  one (unidentified) item on the regular agenda and a one-item consent agenda involving an additional (unidentified) enforcement action.

The most significant agenda items are summarized below. Note: these brief summaries are based on draft items, which may differ from the final items released following the Open Meeting.  Please check with Kelley Drye after the meeting for more information on the items below.


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CashIn the first action of its kind, on June 7, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued an amendment to a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order (“NAL”), for alleged violations of the rules governing the Universal Service Rural Health Care Program (“RHCP”). The FCC found that the fine proposed in the initial NAL was not based on the correct violations and included violations beyond the agency’s one-year statute of limitations.  However, by changing the type of conduct found to violate the RHCP rules and increasing the proposed fine, the FCC’s amendment presents its own statute of limitations concerns and raises questions about the use of amendments in enforcement actions.  The amendment also is the first foray by Chairman Pai into Universal Service enforcement matters since he assumed the chairmanship in January of this year.

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