Thursday, February 16, 2023

Senate Bill Would Require FCC Vetting Process in Awarding High-Cost Broadband Subsidies

On February, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito announced the reintroduction of the Rural Broadband Act. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The bill is intended to provide for an FCC vetting process for applicants seeking universal service dollars to deploy broadband, in order to ensure that the subsidy awards are given to entities that are capable of fulfilling their obligations. 

If passed by Congress, the Rural Broadband Act would require the FCC to conduct a rulemaking that would establish a vetting process for future applicants future high-cost universal program funding for deployment and supporting broadband Internet access services. Under the bill, the Commission would adopt rules requiring those applicants of "new covered funding awards" to include, in their initial applications, a proposal containing sufficient detail and documentation for the Commission to ascertain that the applicant possesses the technical capability, and has a reasonable plan, to deploy the proposed network and deliver services with the relevant characteristics defined by the Commission and as pledged by the applicant. The initial proposal must also include detail sufficient for the Commission to determine whether the applicant's technology would have the ability to perform as required. And the bill directs the Commission to evaluate the proposal using "well-established technical standards." 

The Rural Broadband Act was introduced in the last Congress but did not receive a committee hearing. On its face, the bill appears sensible. The 118th Congress ought to take up the Rural Broadband Act and seriously consider its merits. 

Of course, this legislation exists amidst the larger backdrop of questions surrounding the future of universal service, and whether or the extent to which Universal Service Fund programs should continue as they are presently constituted or be overhauled. Here are a handful of publications by Free State Foundation scholars on point:

  • Andrew Long, "A True Assessment of the USF's Future Relevance Demands a Full Accounting of Broadband Subsidies," FSF Blog (August 30, 2022). 
  • Randolph J. May, "The FCC's USF Report: Unprecedented Broadband Funding Requires Fundamental Universal Services Reforms," Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Vol. 17, No. 42 (August 26, 2022). 
  • Seth L. Cooper, "Congress Should Consider Expanding Universal Service Contributions: FCC Poses a Potential Answer to USF's Financial Problems," Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Vol. 17, No. 41 (August 23, 2022). 
  • Seth L. Cooper, "Congress Should Require Major Web Platforms to Support Universal Service," Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Vol. 17, No. 31 (June 14, 2022). 
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, "Congress May Invest Billions in Broadband: It Should Reform the Universal Service Fund Too," Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Vol. 16, No. 34 (July 9, 2021).