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FCC Votes to Modify USF Deployment Testing

The FCC has voted unanimously to adopt modified methods for verifying that carriers receiving Universal Service Fund high-cost support for broadband deployment (primarily in rural areas) are supplying the speed and quality of service they have promised when seeking the USF subsidies.

The commission adopted an order responding to requests that it reconsider its 2018 decision establishing such testing. Its response was that such testing was necessary to insure that consumers, taxpayers and the FCC get the speeds and quality that will insure that rural customers don't get second-class service.

But it also made some "target modifications" to provide some flexibility in deadlines and minimizing compliance costs for smaller operators.

Specifically, the order generally affirms the 2018 approach, but allowing for correlating testing with the timing of deployment, allowing for pre-testing without withholding support, more flexibility in where the testing occurs, and credit for meeting the speed and quality requirement for some portion of a buildout.

FCC chair Ajit Pai said for Americans to get the full benefit of USF broadband buildouts, carriers need to follow through, and that building out to a certain number of homes was only half the job. Actually delivering the promised speed and quality is necessary to make sure rural customers weren't getting the short end of the stick. He said the item was about the "verify" portion of the "trust but verify" proverb that was a favorite of arguably his favorite President, Ronald Reagan. He said it provided the necessary verification, while allowing for flexibility and removing unnecessary burdens.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he supported what he called a balanced approach and necessary to insure that consumer-paid subsidy programs delivered on that investment. But he did not support the rhetoric of opponents of the carrier-sought flexibility the FCC modifications provided. He said the suggestion that those carrier petitioners were attempting to harm rural America or subject them to inferior service was "unfair and unfounded." He said those carriers were reputable organizations trying to get service to their neighbors, and asked that the rhetoric be "taken down a notch of two."

Commissioner Brendan Carr said he agreed with the decision to deny carrier requests that performance tests be eliminated or confined to only one portion of the network, He said while he recognized they did not control intermediate networks (middle mile), they had promised to deliver a certain level of service, and would need to deliver on that promise.

Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks agreed that it was important to hold carriers to their promises, but Rosenworcel suggested it was only a modest step, with more work to do, including that the FCC appears to lack the resources to monitor the high-cost program.