FCC Passes Landmark USF Order
The FCC, which had promised to address concerns about the predictability and sufficiency of the high-cost Universal Service Fund (USF) budget (now the Connect America Fund, or CAF) before the end of 2018, took that action during its December 12, 2018, open meeting. In a unanimous vote, the commission adopted an order that will provide additional funds to smaller operators like those in NTCA’s membership and enable the delivery of higher-speed services in rural areas.
“Today’s action represents a watershed moment in our nation’s long-running effort to promote and sustain universal service in a broadband world,” said Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which had expressed its strong support for the draft order ahead of its adoption this week. “More than seven years after the FCC’s ‘Transformation Order’ first aimed to reorient federal USF support systems toward broadband, and in the wake of a 2016 order that took important steps toward that goal, today’s landmark order delivers on much of the promise of these prior reform efforts and will hopefully put the high-cost USF program on a path for greater success and stability for years to come.”
The commission said its action updates the CAF programs that support rate-of-return carriers, providing additional funding in return for requiring providers to expand availability of service offering of at least 25/3 Mbps, compared with the current 10/1 Mbps standard. Updates include:
- Offering up to $67 million a year in additional support for carriers currently receiving funding through the Connect America Fund’s Alternative Connect America Cost Model, or ACAM, in exchange for increased 25/3 Mbps deployments.
- Opening a new window for carriers receiving support through cost-based mechanisms to voluntarily move to model-based support through a new A-CAM II offer. Those carriers then would be required to provide 25/3 Mbps service to all homes and businesses whose costs are fully funded through the A-CAM cost model.
- Increasing the $1.4 billion annual budget for carriers that continue to get support from cost-based mechanisms by resetting the baseline budget at 2018 support levels (thereby eliminating the effects of the current budget cuts), initiating an annual inflation adjustment, providing an additional one-time increase in support for 2019, and setting a guaranteed floor of minimum support thereafter for each carrier based upon projected claims. In return, legacy providers would be required to expand deployment of 25/3 Mbps service.
Farm Bill Passes Senate and House
The U.S. Senate on December 11, 2018, passed H.R. 2, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, known as the Farm Bill, by a vote of 87–13. The Senate action came the day after the Farm Bill conference committee released the final agreement on the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill December 12 by a vote of 386–47.
The bill includes a number of items for which NTCA advocated, including streamlined processes for carriers using the USDA programs, more resources for rural broadband deployment, and coordination of those resources with other federal programs, including the following requirements:
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture must coordinate with the FCC and NTIA.
- Project areas must be 90% unserved to receive a grant and 50% unserved to receive a loan or loan guarantee (up from only 15% in the current law).
- Service must be fixed to count as served.
- Areas with too many existing providers are ineligible.
Ahead of the Senate vote, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield congratulated Farm Bill conference members. The conference report “further demonstrates that elected officials appreciate the difficulty of delivering robust broadband in rural areas and will work to provide the necessary resources to promote and sustain deployment,” Bloomfield said. “The nearly 850 members of NTCA—all of whom offer fixed broadband in the nation’s highest-cost areas—especially appreciate the substantial new grant program in the bill and the pains drafters took to ensure those resources won’t duplicate the work of other federal programs and private deployment efforts.”
FCC to Launch Database for Reassigned Numbers
During its December 12, 2018, open meeting, the FCC said it would establish a reassigned numbers database as a way to cut down on the number of unwanted phone calls Americans receive.
The new rules establish a single, comprehensive database with information provided by phone companies that callers will be able to use to avoid calling reassigned numbers. The commission also said it is providing callers a safe harbor from liability for any calls to reassigned numbers caused by database error.
In recent weeks, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association had joined with the American Cable Association to suggest changes to the draft order on eliminating robocalls. Specifically, these edits were intended to reduce the burdens that small carriers would face in terms of reporting to the database on disconnected telephone numbers.
In related news, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel yesterday sent letters to major phone companies calling for free robocall blocking solutions for consumers across the country.
FCC Rolls Out Comprehensive Communications Marketplace Report
The FCC on December 12, 2018, adopted its first “Communications Marketplace Report,” a comprehensive look at the communications marketplace that eliminates or modifies 10 separate reports, consolidating that information into a single report.
The new report covers competition across all communications marketplaces: mobile wireless, fixed broadband, audio, video and satellite communications markets. The report will be issued every two years.
NTCA Comments on How to Better Serve MLTS Customers
In comments filed with the FCC December 10, 2018, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association said the commission’s current E911 rules for voice over internet protocol (VoIP) providers should provide a useful model as to how to address more precise dispatchable locations.
Noting that the commission’s current rules require “interconnected VoIP providers to ‘obtain from each customer, prior to the initiation of service, the physical location at which the service will first be utilized’ and ‘provide their end-users one or more methods of updating’ that information,” the association said that “a similar approach makes sense here, requiring a service provider to configure proper location information upon installation and initiation of service only to the extent they are involved in configuration of handsets and systems in the first instance. The MLTS (multiline telephone systems) user should then be required to configure and update dispatchable location information as needed to account for any internal changes such as the location of handsets or users at the customer’s facility.”
Such an approach would ensure that MLTS users can “enjoy all the benefits of these moderns systems including more efficient access to public safety services while also minimizing the burden imposed on providers,” the association concluded.
NTCA Comments on More Effective Use of 3.7–4.2 GHz Spectrum
In comments filed with the FCC on December 11, 2018, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association said proposals for replacement of current rules for the 3.7–4.2 GHz band “demand more thorough and careful consideration,” but “rather than rush to judgment in a manner that disrupts existing operations in the band or undermines the public interest in using such spectrum going forward, NTCA supports a measured approach that ensures that this important public resource is put to its highest and best use for the benefit of all consumers, including those residing in rural areas.”
On the question of whether an auction-based approach, a more market-based approach or a hybrid mechanism would be most efficient in repurposing a portion or all of the spectrum, the association stressed the importance of ensuring that, regardless of which method the commission selects, small and rural providers have “a realistic chance to obtain” spectrum.
Notes in the News for December 13, 2018
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on December 13 announced the launch of the Rural Utilities Service rural broadband pilot program, Reconnect.
At its open meeting December 12, the FCC adopted new rules to promote the availability of spectrum bands above 24 GHz for a 5G auction in 2019.
The FCC has denied requests from mass-texting companies to classify text messaging services as “telecommunications services.” Both SMS and MMS services will remain “information services,” in an attempt to protect consumers from spam robotexts.
The FCC on December 12 adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking to commence the 2018 Quadrennial Review of the commission’s media ownership rules, including the local radio and television ownership rules.
The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on the RAY BAUM’s Act, “A Bipartisan Foundation for Bridging the Digital Divide,” on December 11. NTCA has been supportive of the legislation.
The Federal Trade Commission held a hearing on data security, “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” December 11–12, in Washington, D.C.
The FCC on December 7 launched an investigation into potential violations of Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) mapping rules by one or more major carriers.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced December 6 that Jane Hinckley Halprin will serve as the agency’s administrative law judge, replacing the retired Judge Richard Sippel.
Chairman Pai on November 29 responded to a letter from the Oklahoma congressional delegation regarding questions on broadband mapping for the MF-II challenge process.
The FCC has announced its intent to recharter the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC).
NTCA Vice President of Legal and Industry and Assistant General Counsel Jill Canfield attended the December 13 CSCRIC meeting as NTCA’s representative.
NTCA Director of Industry and Policy Analysis Jesse Ward will take part in a DHS ICT Supply Chain Risk Management Task Force Executive Committee meeting December 13 in Arlington, Va.
NTCA Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs and Business Development Michael Romano spoke December 11 on a Pew Charitable Trusts panel covering the importance of accurate broadband availability data.
Michael Romano will also speak at a Calix panel on December 14, 2018.
NTCA Senior Regulatory Counsel Brian Ford on December 13, 2018, will present, “The FCC’s Robocall Rules, Possible Caller ID Authentication Methods and the Implications for Rural Carriers,” during the SDTA PUC Forum in Sioux Falls, S.D.