Kansas Legislators Push FCC to Fix Broadband Subsidy Shortfall

Members of the Kansas congressional delegation have joined the chorus calling on FCC chair Ajit Pai to restore funding to the Universal Service Program's high-cost fund, which provides broadband subsidies to rural areas like Kansas.

“Full funding of the program, as designed, helps ensure that rural Kansans have access to high-quality, affordable broadband and voice services comparable to those available in urban areas as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” the members wrote, led by Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both Republicans. “These services are necessary if rural communities are to compete in a global economy. The insufficient and uncertain USF budget continues to hamper rural providers’ efforts to strategically invest in rural broadband at a time when the federal government has made rural broadband a national priority.”

Others have made the same point, and Pai has agreed the budget-control mechanism worked against closing the digital divide and he was on the way to fixing it. "Chairman Pai led his colleagues earlier this year to devote an additional $500 million to small, rural carriers that serve their communities," an FCC spokesperson said two weeks ago after a similar complaint from Sen. Commerce Committee chair John Thune (R-S.D.). "And that’s why he hopes his colleagues will join him later this year in establishing a sufficient and predictable budget so that those in rural communities are not left behind any longer.”

But the Kansans are looking to light a fire under that effort. "We write to urge immediate action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restore sufficiency and predictability to the Universal Service Fund (USF) High Cost program’s budget," they told Pai in a letter.

Chairman Pai has long said that closing that rural divide is a priority for the commission--he is from rural Kansas.

Among the steps the FCC is taking to close that divide are providing about $6 billion in Connect America and Mobility fund subsidies for broadband in unserved areas, including tribal lands, including $340 million to bring 4G LTE to tribal lands. There will also that Remote Areas Fund that kicks in when the Connect America and Mobility Fund monies are used up, with additional money for still-unserved areas.

Pai has also cited the FCC's removal of obstacles to broadband buildouts -- which includes streamlining tower siting and historic preservation and environmental protection reviews -- though he said he had heard and recognized the need to protect "sacred properties," and would "continue to do so.

The FCC also voted in June not to apply rules that make certain small rural broadband providers pay into the Universal Service Fund based on their broadband customers.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.