Does the Universal Service Fund Need a Cap? A Divided FCC Begins its Inquiry

On Friday, May 31, 2019, the FCC released a much-anticipated notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) to consider the adoption of an overall budget cap on the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), separate from any individual budgets for each of the four USF programs. The NPRM is in response to years-long advocacy on the part of Commissioner O’Rielly to impose budgets on USF spending, and it comes over dissent of the two Democratic Commissioners. While Commissioner O’Rielly justified the proposal as responsible stewardship of public money and said it would not limit funding in the near future, Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks criticized the proposal as undermining the goals of Universal Service and, at worst, creating a universal service hunger games” among the support programs.

The release of the NPRM was our first look at the specifics of a proposal that broke a month ago. The NPRM does not propose a specific budget, primarily raises questions about how to proceed, and does not contain any proposed rules. Nevertheless, opponents of the proposal have been most vocal since word of the NPRM came out, and we expect those USF stakeholders to continue in opposition to the approach. Meanwhile, proposals to reform USF contributions remain stalled (and lacking any consensus), while the contribution factor hovers around 20% of assessable revenues.

Section 254 of the Communications Act requires the FCC to establish sufficient and predictable” mechanisms to promote universal service goals. Funding must be explicit (ending the pre-1996 Act era of implicit USF subsidies) and funding must be available on an equitable and nondiscriminatory basis, among other things. Through the USF, financial support is provided to reimburse the cost of services under four separate programs—High-Cost (aka the Connect America Fund”), the Low Income Program (aka Lifeline”), Schools and Libraries (aka E-rate”), and Rural Health Care—that implement the FCC’s mandate of ensuring all Americans have access to universal service. Presently, each program operates with some form of annual funding cap or estimated budget but the total amount differs based on the specific needs or demand.

With the NPRM, the FCC proposes for the first time to establish an overall cap on the Universal Service Fund. The NPRM states at the outset of the discussion that one of its goals is to promote a debate about the relative effectiveness of the USF programs—indicating that there may be some basis to the reservations USF stakeholders have expressed. The FCC seeks comment on whether the overall cap should be set at $11.42 billion—the total of the 2018 authorized budgets for the individual programs (and $3 billion above the actual expenditures of the programs).

The NPRM contains a number of questions about how a cap should operate, whether to index the cap to inflation, whether one-year projections or five-year projections should be used and what would happen if the budget cap is reached. In addition, in a surprise, the NPRM asks whether the budgets for the E-rate program and the Rural Health Care program should be combined in a single budget. Commissioner Starks called out this proposal as raising an alarm for me” and even Commissioner O’Rielly pronounces himself not sold” on the proposal. With respect to Lifeline, the NPRM does not propose any changes to the program. Commissioner O’Rielly claims the proceeding is not a back door” cap on Lifeline – although he states he would be willing to establish such a cap directly.

Looking Ahead

This is setting up to be a particularly contentious debate. One side downplays the proposal as simply encouraging a healthy debate” and not placing any immediate limits on expenditures, while the other side argues that the proposal would undermine universal service policies and eventually pit one program against another in competition for funds. Now that the details of the proposals are out, USF stakeholders are expected to weigh in. Already, many USF-focused organizations have expressed concern about the proposal, and the NPRM is not likely to allay any of those concerns.

Notably missing from the NPRM is a discussion of USF contributions. Although logically distinct from operation of the programs themselves, it is no secret that even the current size of the Fund places pressure on the current system of supporting USF through end user interstate and international telecommunications revenues. For half of 2018, the USF contribution factor exceeded 20%, and early demand projections for the Third Quarter of 2019 make a return to a 20% factor a distinct possibility. The FCC last seriously considered contributions reform in 2008, but proposals have stalled and the Federal-State Joint Board is deeply divided on how to proceed. Changes to the contribution system do not appear likely any time soon, regardless of what happens with this NPRM.