Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Rep. Butterfield Reintroduces Legislation to Eliminate "Eligible Telecommunications Carrier" Requirement for Universal Service Fund Recipients

On June 7, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced that over 2.3 million households had enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) since its launch on May 12.

As I detailed in a December 2020 post to the Free State Foundation's blog, Congress appropriated $3.2 billion to fund the EBB, an FCC-administered program providing eligible households with discounts on monthly high-speed Internet access service and connected devices. By design, however, the EBB is limited in scope: it will end six months after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency or when the money runs out, whichever comes first.

In a February 2021 Perspectives from FSF Scholars, I argued that the EBB potentially might serve as a model for future Lifeline funding. One major reason why: Congress made explicit that a provider need not be designated as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) in order to participate.

The EBB currently includes more than 1,000 providers, ETCs and non-ETCs alike. Those in the latter group had to jump through additional hoops, but in the Report and Order establishing the EBB, the Commission, to its credit, did adopt processes to ensure that non-ETCs "that … submitted complete applications by the priority application deadline will know prior to the start date of the EBB Program if they are eligible to participate." That mitigated the possibility that, at least in this specific instance, ETCs might enjoy an unfair advantage over their non-ETC rivals.

On May 20, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D NC) reintroduced the Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act. In "The ETC Requirement for Accessing Broadband Funds Should Be Eliminated," a June 2020 Perspectives, I applauded the 2020 iteration of this legislation, which would have eliminated altogether the statutory requirement that a provider be designated as an ETC by a state regulatory agency or the FCC prior to participating in Universal Service Fund programs. (The text of the 2021 version, H.R. 3376, is not yet available.)

Passage of H.R. 3376 would benefit consumers by expanding the pool of providers that participate in subsidy programs like the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the $9 billion 5G for Rural America Fund.