FCC officials pledge to usher in reforms that expand broadband in rural areas

A hearing held by the Senate Appropriations Committee‘s Financial Service and General Government Subcommittee panel to discuss the Federal Communications Commission‘s FY 2018 budget request turned quickly from budgetary matters to the agency’s plans to expand high-speed broadband. Questions also arose regarding the FCC’s ability to carry out its essential duties with fewer staff under the new administration.

For FY 2017, the commission requested $322 million, about 5 percent less than current funding levels; though funding is offset by fees collected from the telecommunications industry.

The agency is also operating with 100 fewer staff members than last year, due to retirement and staffers leaving for other job opportunities, according to the testimony of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“We can all agree that budget reductions don’t come easily,” Chairman Ajit Pai told the subcommittee panel on June 20. “We face the same challenges as other agencies in doing more with less. Implementing budget cuts while maintaining essential services means rolling up our sleeves and rethinking how the commission functions and does business.”

Pai claimed that despite staffing reductions over the past several years, the agency has remained “productive.”

During his tenure as chairman, he said, “we’ve already managed to pursue an aggressive schedule for our open meetings, where commissioners consider the highest profile matters. Indeed, in 2017 we are averaging more than double the items per meeting than we considered last year.”

That sentiment was not entirely shared by Clyburn, who told lawmakers that the agency has the fewest number of full-time employees in 30 years.

“In some cases, this has created much needed efficiencies; in others, it has required employees to double up on responsibilities with little or no pay increase,” she said. “This not only puts at risk the quality of the final work product. It also has a direct impact on work-life balance.”

FCC’s ‘top priority’

That said, Pai assured federal lawmakers that the agency’s “top priority … is closing the digital divide.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, recently introduced legislation to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet in low-income communities, a proposal that matches the one put forth by Chairman Pai.

Capito’s Gigabit Opportunity Act, S. 1013, encourages new investments to connect rural and urban communities by empowering state governors to direct investments to the areas of greatest need, and it eliminates regulatory barriers for telecommunications providers. The bill awaits consideration in the Senate Finance Committee.

The GO Act also directs the FCC to craft a framework to streamline broadband laws throughout states.

“Once adopted, governors will be able to nominate a portion of their state’s low-income areas as Gigabit Opportunity Zones,” Capito said. “Businesses that invest in these zones or make upgrades would benefit from targeted tax and other incentives. With all the focus on rural America, now is the time to level the playing field and close that digital divide.”

Rural broadband access

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has also proposed to fund so-called Gigabit Opportunity Zones through Universal Service Fund reforms. His proposal would cover some of the costs of deploying mobile broadband in high-cost rural areas and would be funded in part using revenue accrued from spectrum auctions.

His proposal dedicates 10 percent of spectrum auction proceeds to mobile broadband deployment for rural areas, where advocates contend that bandwidth consumption of local schools is unmatched with urban areas due to a lack, and in some cases absence, of connectivity in rural regions.

Observers in the education community have raised concerns about the future of USF funding, and are closely watching to see whether the E-rate program undergoes changes under Pai’s leadership.

Currently the USF program is funded through the telecommunications industry as a percentage of voice revenues. However, proposals to expand the contribution base and require fees on broadband services too have been met with strong resistance because consumer fees that make up the USF have steadily climbed over the years.

Chairman Pai made clear at the hearing that the agency seeks to further expand the USF program to fund broadband deployments to meet rural needs, but the way forward is still unclear.

The FCC instituted similar reforms to expand broadband under the Schools and Libraries Program, and is now underway in reforming the Lifeline program by finalizing rules to subsidize high-speed connections among low-income households.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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