Budget Cap on USF Fails THE Basic Test

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As you probably know, the FCC’s recent NPRM proposed an $11.49 billion cap on the total Universal Service Fund. This amount represents the sum of the authorized budgets of the four USF programs in 2018.

Not surprisingly, comments on this proposal drew a goodly number of dissenting views from assorted industry sources. One group argued that the while the FCC had authority to establish four separate funds, it was not allowed to subject them to a single, overall budget. Another held that an overall cap would be inconsistent with the Congressional mandate to ensure a sufficient, predictable and specific support level for each individual program.

Other commenters found that the proposed cap could, in actuality, stifle the broadband deployment that the Commission has long sought to promote across the nation; another said it could pit interests from one program against others, in an attempt to preserve much needed funding. These are all valid and persuasive arguments.

But the best argument against any hard, individual cap, or one overall cap, strikes against the heart of the federal Communications Act of 1934. “All people in the United States,” it clearly stated, “shall have access to rapid, efficient, nationwide communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” In 1996, Congress added low income individuals, rural health care providers and schools and libraries to this list.

BY LAW, then, all people and entities defined in the 1996 Act are guaranteed rapid, efficient, communications facilities, at reasonable rates. There is no qualifying language, e.g., “as defined by, or limited to, or subject to, a pre-determined budget cap,” in that act.

Thus, Universal Service is clearly a right. If the FCC is concerned about cost, it should use its New Enforcement Division, the FTC, and the FBI when necessary, to root out fraud and corruption in the various programs, most notably, the Lifeline program. This would most likely reduce costs substantially.