On Friday, May 31, 2019, the FCC released a much-anticipated notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider the adoption of an overall budget cap on the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), separate from any individual budgets for each of the four USF programs. The NPRM is in response to years-long advocacy on the part of Commissioner O’Rielly to impose budgets on USF spending, and it comes over dissent of the two Democratic Commissioners. While Commissioner O’Rielly justified the proposal as responsible stewardship of public money and said it would not limit funding in the near future, Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks criticized the proposal as undermining the goals of Universal Service and, at worst, creating a “universal service hunger games” among the support programs.

The release of the NPRM was our first look at the specifics of a proposal that broke a month ago. The NPRM does not propose a specific budget, primarily raises questions about how to proceed, and does not contain any proposed rules. Nevertheless, opponents of the proposal have been most vocal since word of the NPRM came out, and we expect those USF stakeholders to continue in opposition to the approach. Meanwhile, proposals to reform USF contributions remain stalled (and lacking any consensus), while the contribution factor hovers around 20% of assessable revenues.


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The FCC plans to adopt an order eliminating the controversial rural “rate floor” that restricts the amount of Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support received by some carriers to build and maintain networks in underserved areas at its next meeting scheduled for April 12, 2019. The rural rate floor, which requires carriers receiving Connect America Fund (“CAF”) support to charge a minimum monthly rate or risk losing subsidies, has been a longstanding target of criticism by Chairman Pai as well as consumer groups, Tribal authorities, and rural carriers. The proposed order follows a nearly two-year freeze in the rate floor implemented soon after Chairman Pai assumed leadership and would avoid an almost 50% increase in the rate floor scheduled to take effect in July 2019. Rate floor elimination would provide significant regulatory relief to rural carriers by increasing flexibility over service rates, while reducing associated reporting and customer notification requirements.

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It’s once again full speed ahead on spectrum and 5G deployment at the FCC, as the agency plans to take action at its next open meeting scheduled for April 12, 2019 on a slew of measures aimed at making additional millimeter wave (“mmW”) frequencies available to support 5G wireless technologies, the Internet of Things, and other advanced services. Topping the agenda, the agency expects to propose procedures for the simultaneous auction of spectrum for commercial wireless services in three mmW bands encompassing 3400 megahertz. As we previously reported, the proposal would clear the way for the FCC’s second-ever incentive auction (the first being the March 2017 broadcast spectrum incentive auction) designed to clear out incumbent licensees by offering payments in exchange for relinquishing current spectrum holdings. The agency also anticipates reforming access to mmW bands to facilitate the auction and extending long-standing protections for over-the-air reception devices (“OTARD”) to hub and relay antennas essential to 5G network deployment. Rounding out the major actions on the April agenda, the FCC plans to forbear from certain legacy long-distance regulations in the face of increased competition and eliminate the controversial rural “rate floor” for high cost universal service support.

You will find more details on the significant April meeting items after the break:


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Back for its 10th year, our most popular webinar offers an in-depth discussion on the federal Universal Service Fund for participants in USF programs and for contributors to the Fund. This webinar will address major developments in the four support funds and discuss the pressures on the USF contribution system in an era of 20% contribution rates. In addition, as usual, we will offer tips and insights into managing audits and investigations in these highly scrutinized programs.

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On February 4, 2019, the FCC announced a plan to create a new division housed in its Enforcement Bureau, dedicated to prosecuting fraud in the agency’s Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs. Citing to recent USF-related proposed fines and voluntary settlements, the FCC asserted that the creation of a specialized Fraud Division was necessary to combat misuse of funds under the High Cost, E-Rate, Lifeline, and Rural Health Care programs that make up the USF. The FCC’s brief, two-page Order leaves many questions unanswered about the proposed Fraud Division’s ambit and the status of the “USF Strike Force” that preceded it. However, the Order signifies that the FCC plans to redouble its fraud enforcement efforts in 2019 following recent setbacks on the USF rulemaking front. As a result, eligible telecommunications carriers and other recipients of USF support should keep a close watch as the scope and function of the new Fraud Division starts to take shape.
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The FCC plans to take aim again at unwanted texts and robocalls at its next meeting scheduled for December 12, 2018. Unwanted robocalls and texting consistently top the list of complaints received by the FCC and that has driven much regulatory attention by the agency in recent years. Specifically, at its December meeting, the FCC intends to classify most text messaging as an “information service” to preserve service providers’ ability to block robotexts and other unsolicited messages. The FCC’s anticipated action comes after years of debate regarding the proper regulatory treatment for text messaging and could have far-reaching impacts by exempting such services from the standard “common carrier” rules applicable to most legacy telecommunications. The FCC also plans to order the creation of a reassigned numbers database that would allow robocallers and others to check in advance whether a particular number still belongs to a consumer that has agreed to receive prerecorded calls. Rounding out the major actions, the FCC released draft items that would: (1) set the stage for the next Spectrum Frontiers auction of high-band spectrum; (2) offer additional funding to rural broadband recipients of Connect America Fund money if they increase high-speed offerings; and (3) issue the FCC’s first consolidated Communications Marketplace Report, providing a comprehensive look at industry competition. The December items cover many priority Pai FCC topics and would affect service providers of all sizes while tackling longstanding consumer protection and broadband deployment issues. You will find more details on the significant December items after the jump:

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The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took a major step forward on closing the “digital divide” in mobile broadband at its February meeting by unanimously adopting an Order resolving the remaining challenges to the Mobility Fund Phase II (“MF-II”) auction.  The order eases the letter of credit requirements and clarifies the collocation obligations for funding recipients, but generally preserves the MF-II auction budget, disbursement, and performance rules announced last year.  After clearing away these challenges, the FCC will focus on identifying the areas eligible for funding and conducting the auction later this year.

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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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iStock_000006131068MediumOn May 18, 2017, at its May Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order on a two-one vote, seeking comment on whether it should reform the so-called rural “rate floor” on basic voice service or eliminate it entirely.  The rural rate floor rule requires carriers receiving Connect America Fund support to charge rural customers a minimum monthly rate or risk losing subsidies.  The FCC imposed a two-year freeze on the rural rate floor to provide it with sufficient time to consider the proposed reforms.  The rulemaking is yet another reversal of a policy supported by former FCC Chairman Wheeler, which current Chairman Pai dissented from as a Commissioner, and represents another step by the Pai FCC to roll back its predecessor’s actions.

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At the February 2017 Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (Commission) approved an Order finalizing bidding rules for the upcoming Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II auction where service providers will compete for up to $1.98 billion in financial support in areas where the incumbent provider declined cost-model funding. This Order is the next stage in an ongoing effort by the Commission to revise aspects of the high cost program of the universal service fund (USF) to encourage the extension of voice and broadband communications services to rural and high cost areas of the country. As of this writing, the Commission has yet to release the text of the order.

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