If the budgets released by the two major U.S. telecommunications regulators are any indication, 2015 promises major reform of the $8.7 billion Universal Service Fund (“USF”) and an even greater focus on making more spectrum available for broadband use.
The largest requests by both the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) in their proposed 2015 budgets are for funding to support broadband deployment. The FCC has sought a $35 million increase over last year’s budget, the bulk of which is allocated for salaries for 45 new attorneys, economists, IT specialists, program managers and technologists to participate in heightened oversight of the USF and support its transition from a telephony-subsidy program to one focused primarily on the expansion of broadband availability. The restructuring of the USF, which is funded from fees collected from wireline and wireless telecommunications carriers and VoIP providers, has been an agency priority since 2011. In that year, the agency approved significant reforms of USF, including the creation of a Connect America Fund to support the expansion of broadband service to previously unserved areas. Once hired, the new FCC staff will likely be charged with helping address the ongoing need to increase oversight and management of the various USF programs.
The rest of the FCC’s budget increase will go to support several major new initiatives, including:
- the creation of a Do Not Call Registry for Public Safety Answering Points (“PSAPs”), which was mandated by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to help prevent automatic dialing equipment or “robocalls” from tying up public safely lines;
- to allow for the transfer of the management of the National Broadband Map from the NTIA to the FCC;
- to hire 10 new staff members for an expanded information technology department; and
- to improve cybersecurity and enforcement mechanisms at the FCC.
The Administration has also proposed several legislative changes that would affect the agency’s management of spectrum, including granting the FCC authority to implement a “spectrum license user fee” on as-yet unauctioned spectrum licenses. If adopted by Congress, collection of spectrum-user fees could start as soon as 2015, and are estimated to total $4.8 billion through 2024. The Administration has also proposed the repurposing of 1675-1680 MHz spectrum, currently used by Federal weather balloons, for commercial use. The budget projects that the auction of this spectrum would raise $230 million over the next 10 years.
The Department of Commerce (“Department”), which includes the NTIA, has also previewed its 2015 budget. NTIA is seeking a total of $51 million to accomplish several broadband-related goals, including measures to help the Administration meet its informal goal of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum through auctions designed to increase commercial access to wireless broadband spectrum. NTIA is also seeking $7.5 million for a new “Internet Policy Center.” The purpose of the new Center is not well defined in the budget aside from the general task of enhancing the Department’s “coordination and policymaking across broadband stakeholders.” The Department’s budget also allots $7 billion to the First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”), which is charged with deploying a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for the exclusive use of public safety and first responders, although this money will come from spectrum auctions run by the FCC, rather than from new appropriations.