2021 is well underway and the new leadership at the FCC is taking shape. While we don’t yet know who will fill the Chair on a permanent basis, the FCC under Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel is proceeding without delay. So far, the Commission has tackled ongoing issues of bipartisan support, including broadband mapping, communications supply chain security and preventing 911 fee diversion. But the biggest challenges ahead are in the universal service fund and, specifically, efforts to bridge the digital divide.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at developments in the FCC’s $9 billion-per-year Federal Universal Service Fund and more recent pandemic-related efforts to address deficiencies in broadband access that have been exposed by our year of remote work, school and social activities.


Continue Reading The State of the Universal Service Fund in 2021

As required by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (“CAA”), on February 25, 2021, the FCC adopted a Report and Order to officially establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit (“EBB”) Program. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in virtual services and learning, access to broadband services has now become essential for most households. With this in mind, the program is designed to provide broadband services to help low-income households in particular stay connected. We have summarized the program and noted some key provisions and next steps for the FCC and potential participating providers. The program is temporary, and will expire when funds have been exhausted or 6 months after the Health and Human Services Secretary declares the end of the nationwide COVID-19 health emergency.

Continue Reading FCC Implements $50/Month Broadband Subsidy For Low-Income Households

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact how Americans connect at work and home, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has been active to keep communications services available through various waivers, extensions, and other regulatory relief. Kelley Drye’s Communications Practice Group is tracking these actions and what they mean for communications service providers and their customers. CommLaw Monitor periodically provides updates to its analysis of the latest regulatory and legislative actions impacting your business and the communications industry. Click on the “COVID-19” blog category for previous updates.

If you have any urgent questions, please contact your usual Kelley Drye attorney or any member of the Communications Practice Group. For more information on other aspects of the federal and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as labor and employment and other issues, please visit Kelley Drye’s COVID-19 Response Resource Center.


Continue Reading COVID-19: What Communications Service Providers Need to Know – September 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly unfolds, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has been active to keep communications services available through various waivers, extensions, and other regulatory relief. Kelley Drye’s Communications Practice Group is tracking these actions and what they mean for communications service providers and their customers. CommLaw Monitor will provide regular updates to its analysis of the latest regulatory and legislative actions impacting your business and the communications industry. Click on the “COVID-19” blog category for previous updates.

If you have any urgent questions, please contact your usual Kelley Drye attorney or any member of the Communications Practice Group. For more information on other aspects of the federal and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as labor and employment and other issues, please visit Kelley Drye’s COVID-19 Response Resource Center.


Continue Reading COVID-19: What Communications Service Providers Need to Know – June 1, 2020

In a strongly worded Report and Order, Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and Order (the “Order”) released on November 26, 2019, the FCC adopted several measures to protect U.S. communications networks from potential national security threats. Likely coming as no surprise to anyone following the proceeding or current news, the FCC identified Huawei Technologies Company (“Huawei”) and ZTE Corporation (“ZTE”), both Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturers, as national security threats based, in large part, on the companies’ close ties to the Chinese government. Adding to numerous recent federal actions addressing national security concerns, the Order takes three significant steps, within the context of the universal service fund (“USF”) program, to try to mitigate national security threats to the nation’s communications networks.

Continue Reading FCC Prohibits Carriers Receiving USF Support from Using Providers Deemed to Pose a National Security Risk; Further Notice to Explore Using USF to Replace Equipment Already Installed

The FCC proposed sweeping reforms to its process for suspending and debarring entities from participating in its largest funding programs, including the four Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs, at its meeting on November 22, 2019. If adopted, the proposed rules would mark a sea change in FCC enforcement, allowing the FCC to cut off funding more quickly and for a wider range of alleged misconduct. The FCC also would expand the scope of these rules to cover its Telecommunications Relay Service (“TRS”) program and National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (“NDBEP”), in addition to the High-Cost, Lifeline, E-Rate, and Rural Health Care USF programs.

The proposed rules also would impose new disclosure obligations on support recipients and require them to verify that they do not work with suspended/debarred entities. In addition, the proposed rules would create a federal reciprocity system, in which entities suspended/debarred from participating in funding programs administered by other agencies similarly would be prevented from participating in the FCC’s programs (and vice versa). The proposed rules would impact nearly every USF participant and warrant close attention. The FCC has not announced comment deadlines on its proposals, but they will likely occur in early 2020. While the FCC’s proposals are just the first step towards actual rule changes, the agency has shown every indication that it will continue moving full speed ahead on USF reform in the coming year.


Continue Reading FCC Plans Major Overhaul of Suspension and Debarment Rules for its USF, TRS, and Other Funding Programs

Continuing its push to free up spectrum to support next-generation 5G services, the FCC plans to move forward on auctions of both mid- and high-band spectrum for commercial mobile use at its next open meeting scheduled for July 10, 2019. First, the FCC would establish new licensing rules for the 2.496-2.690 GHz band (“2.5 GHz Band”) currently used for educational television services to facilitate the auction of the spectrum next year. The FCC contends that the 2.5 GHz Band, which represents the largest contiguous block of mid-band spectrum considered for auction to date, has largely gone unused and should be opened up for commercial use. Second, the FCC would adopt application and bidding procedures for the auction of spectrum at 37.6-38.6 GHz (“Upper 37 GHz Band”), 38.6 GHz-40.0 GHz (“39 GHz Band”), and 47.2-48.2 GHz (“47 GHz Band”). This auction would be the FCC’s third auction of high-band spectrum, following the recent auctions of 24 GHz band and 28 GHz band spectrum. As we previously noted, this auction is complicated by the presence of incumbent licensees in the 39 GHz Band, who would be offered incentive payments to accept modified licenses or leave the Band under the FCC’s plan. Rounding out the major July actions, the FCC expects to seek comment on establishing a three-year, $100 million universal service pilot program to support telehealth services as well as eliminate pricing regulation and other restrictions on certain legacy data transport services offered by price cap carriers.

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


Continue Reading FCC Tees Up Mid- and High-Band Spectrum Auctions to Support 5G at July Open Meeting

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.


Continue Reading Does the Universal Service Fund Need a Cap? A Divided FCC Begins its Inquiry

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.

Continue Reading FCC Plans to Eliminate Rural “Rate Floor,” Heading Off Potential Price Hikes