Markey Leads Countercharge Against USF Cap

Hill Democrats are continuing to push back on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal to cap the Universal Service Fund, which are the subsidies for phone and broadband underwritten by ratepayers on their monthly bills, saying it would harm healthcare, broadband deployment and education. 

Related: OTI Brands USF Cap Threat to Closing Digital Divide 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and more than two dozen more Senate Democrats--including presidential candidates Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders--are calling on the FCC to scrap its proposal to put a budget on the overall fund, as well as a combined "sub-cap" on the E-rate and Rural Health Care funds. The USF comprises four funds: Those two and a Lifeline and Connect America Fund. The former is for low-income residents, the latter to migrate phone funding to broadband. 

That came in a letter to Pai dated Thursday, Sept. 19. 

Back in May, Pai circulated a proposal to cap the USF fund at $11.42 billion, which backers of that cap point out is "well-above current disbursement levels," and leaves a nearly $2 billion cushion for potential spending. 

"I believe we must set an upper limit of what we’re willing to take from hardworking American consumers to support these subsidies," said on of those fans, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly at the time. "Determining this maximum level is also a necessary precondition to any effort to reform the FCC’s method for assessing USF contributions[ currently phone service, but not broadband service. is assessed]." 

“Each program that is a part of USF plays an indispensable role in achieving the ultimate goal of USF, access to communication services for every American,” write the Senators in their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The proposal to place a universal cap on these programs is a direct assault on the FCC’s mission of bridging the digital divide. The proposal to combine the sub-caps for the E-Rate and Rural Health Care funds is particularly troubling. None of the USF programs should be pitted against each other and forced to vie for a piece of the pie.” 

Also signing on to the letter were Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-M.D.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-M.D.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). 

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.