Wireless and satellite industry representatives converged last Thursday at a hearing before the Senate communications subcommittee to recommend changes in the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) mechanisms that would boost wireless and other alternatives to fixed wireline broadband network infrastructure in rural areas. Witnesses at the subcommittee hearing on Ensuring Intermodal USF Support for Rural America included Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President Steve Berry, ViaSat vice president Michael Rapelyea, Jimmy Carr, a representative of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), and U.S. Cellular Chairman LeRoy Carlson, Jr.
With the goal of boosting broadband deployment, the FCC adopted rules in 2011 to establish the Connect America Fund (CAF) and Mobility Fund as USF funding mechanisms for fixed and mobile broadband services, respectively. Berry lamented over continuing delays at the FCC in implementing the second phase of the Mobility Fund, which would earmark at least $500 million in ongoing support for mobile voice and broadband services. Carr also told lawmakers that, rather than mandating a framework for the next phase of the CAF “that favors one technology over another,” the FCC should allow providers to “meet a threshold level of requirements” with the best available technology, be it fixed or wireless. At the same time, Rapelyea suggested that, because the CAF and Mobility Funds are administered by the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, there could be a “tilt and bias” toward wireline solutions to broadband deployment in rural areas. Agreeing that “that mindset is still getting a disproportionate amount of funds,” Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) replied, “that’s what we’re trying to correct here.”