On Monday, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai unveiled what he termed as “a concrete and specific plan” for boosting deployment of broadband services and infrastructure in rural areas. The plan involves the amendment of existing FCC rules to enable universal service fund (USF) support of stand-alone broadband connections and the participation of rateof-return carriers in the broadband-driven Connect America Fund. 

Speaking at a roundtable event in Omaha, Nebraska, Pai explained that his plan addresses “a quirk of regulatory history” by which FCC rules governing small, rural carriers “continue to provide [USF] support only to networks that supply telephone service, not stand-alone broadband service.” Observing that the FCC has “made progress” in expanding broadband services to rural areas served by large carriers but is “failing those residing in areas served by the smallest,” Pai decried the “Hobson’s choice” faced by small rural carriers that must decide to offer stand-alone broadband “and lose universal service support” or else “deny consumers the option of an Internet-only service, and then risk them dropping service altogether.” Pai thus lamented that “rural carriers hold back investment because they are unsure if they can deploy the next-generation services that consumers are demanding.” 

The remedy, said Pai, lies in a single-page document which has been released to the public and which contains the necessary rule changes to “redirect funding to support stand-alone broadband facilities.” In the words of Pai, the proposed rule changes would permit carriers to “include stand-alone broadband costs when calculating high-cost loop support and interstate common line support” and would “determine how much of that support should be attributed to stand-alone broadband.”