Universal Service Fund

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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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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On January 30, 2019, Geoffrey Starks was sworn in as the newest FCC Commissioner, restoring the agency to its full complement of five Commissioners for the first time since the summer. In announcing his swearing in, Commissioner Starks stated he intends to focus on strong FCC enforcement “protecting the most vulnerable and holding wrongdoers accountable.” He added that he will “serve the public interest by encouraging innovation, competition, and security, as well as advancing policies to increase the quality, availability, and affordability of our country’s communications services.” Commissioner Starks joins Commissioner Rosenworcel as one of the two Democratic Commissioners at the FCC. He fills the seat vacated by former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who left in June 2018 after nearly nine years at the FCC, including a stint as acting Chairwoman in 2013. Commissioner Starks will complete Ms. Clyburn’s five-year term, which expires at the end of June 2022. Although Commissioner Starks’ swearing in is not expected to result in any immediate FCC policy shifts, his addition provides a strong voice in favor of Open Internet regulation, Universal Service Fund reform, and enforcement.
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We attended the Audit Committee meeting at USAC’s quarterly business meeting this morning.  While much of the discussion concerned internal controls USAC has in place to oversee its functions, the business update portion of the meeting gave us a snapshot into contributor and beneficiary audit activity at USAC.  The presentation gave us some insight into a likely increased amount of activity over the next few months.

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As summer begins to wind down, the FCC will begin considering whether to revise or eliminate decade-old regulations, including certain rules related to the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), equipment authorization procedures, and disabilities access. The FCC kicked off its review with a Public Notice under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which requires federal agencies to reexamine regulations within 10 years of their adoption to assess the continued need for the rules, the rules’ complexity, and whether the rules overlap or conflict with other federal regulations. The purpose of the review is to ensure that older, unnecessary rules do not remain on the books, lowering the compliance burden for smaller businesses. Although the FCC rarely eliminates a rule outright as part of this review, the comments received can help the agency identify improvements for future rulemakings or flag potential compliance issues.

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Echoing concerns raised by other parts of the federal government over the past several years, the FCC, at its open meeting on April 17, 2018, adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider a rule which would prohibit Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support from being used “to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by a company posing a national security threat to the integrity of communications networks or the communications supply chain.”  The NPRM seeks comment on issues such as how such a rule can be implemented and enforced, what types of equipment and services should be covered, and how manufacturers covered by the rule are to be identified and made known to USF recipients.  Although this is only the start of the proceeding, the FCC’s action could have a broad-reaching impact for some communications equipment manufacturers and create potential liabilities for entities participating in any of the federal USF programs.  All companies purchasing equipment from certain countries – principally China and Russia – may be affected, even if they don’t receive federal USF money.

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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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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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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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