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FCC urged to ensure access to affordable rural broadband

Bipartisan senators urged Federal Communications Commission to address Universal Service Fund budget shortfall.

A bipartisan group of senators urged in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure its commitment to affordable and reliable broadband for consumers in the hardest-to-reach communities across rural America.

Led by Sen Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, along with Sens. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), the senators wrote, “A lack of resources to meet our (shared national broadband) goals is undermining investment and consumer access to affordable broadband across much of rural America. For this reason, we write to encourage the FCC to take the much-needed step of addressing the High-Cost Universal Service Fund (USF) budget shortfall.”

The federal universal service high-cost program is designed to ensure that consumers in rural, insular and high-cost areas have access to modern communications networks capable of providing voice and broadband service, both fixed and mobile, at rates that are reasonably comparable to those in urban areas. The program fulfills this universal service goal by allowing eligible carriers who serve these areas to recover some of their costs from the federal USF.

Earlier this year, approximately 160 members of Congress raised similar concerns in letters to FCC. Since these letters were sent, many providers have continued to experience a significant reduction in support. In the ensuing months, the senators said many of them have continued to press FCC to resolve these concerns.

“We believe that the FCC is best positioned to identify a solution to the budget shortfall that is limiting access to reliable and affordable broadband in rural communities,” the letter urged. 

“Many of the providers that serve rural consumers and businesses in our states have already begun to feel the pain of an arbitrary budget cap on High-Cost USF support," the letter continued. "We urge the FCC to take action as quickly as possible to ensure the High-Cost USF program provides sufficient and predictable support to help deliver affordable, high-quality broadband to rural consumers.”

The effort has the support of key industry associations. Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Assn., said, “This bipartisan letter, sent at a time where the FCC is evaluating how to address the insufficiency of the current USF budget, highlights the continued dedication of Congress in making sure the USF mechanisms work as intended to prioritize consumers and close the digital divide for rural communities.”

Derrick Owens, vice president for government affairs of the Western Telecommunications Alliance (WTA), said, “WTA and its more than 340 small, rural-based telecommunications providers are grateful for the attention that this bipartisan group of senators have brought to the important issue of rural broadband. The Universal Service Fund has been effective in bringing telecommunications and now broadband service to rural America, but if that is to continue, funding must be sufficient and predictable for further broadband build-out and deployment. FCC chairman Pai recently committed to address the sufficiency of USF, and WTA looks forward to working with him and Congress on this matter."

In addition to Roberts, Moran and Klobuchar, the letter was signed by: Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.), John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), John Boozman (R., Ark.), Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (R., La.), Susan Collins (R., Maine), John Cornyn (R., Texas), Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.), Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Mike Crapo (R., Ida.), Steve Daines (R., Mont.), Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.), Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), Al Franken (D., Minn.), Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.), Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.), John Hoeven (R., N.D.), Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), Angus King (I., Maine), James Lankford (R., Okla.), Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Patty Murray (D., Wash.), James Risch (R., Ida.), Mike Rounds (R., S.D.), Tim Scott (R., S.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), Luther Strange (R., Ala.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.) and Thom Tillis (R., N.C.).

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