New Bill Expands Access to USF Subsidies

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) has introduced a bill that would give more broadband providers access to the FCC's Universal Service Fund subsidy money. 

High-cost areas are ones where it is sufficiently expensive to provide service that there is not a business case for it without subsidies. 

The Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act would eliminate the requirement that only ISPs designated eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) can get USF high-cost dollars, something cable operators have been pushing for years. 

WISPA VP of government affairs Christina Mason, praised the bill's broadening of the definition of USF-supported services to include broadband-only providers and "streamline showings of financial viability and fitness in order to receive USF support." 

"As billed, these key changes will greatly expand opportunities for small rural and urban broadband providers, making it easier for them to apply for USF subsidies when the opportunity arises," said Mason. "Not only will this expand participation in the USF program to smaller, nimbler and able providers, it will mean more and faster deployment of broadband to areas most in need, shrinking the digital divide.   

"Many unserved areas lack broadband access in part because experienced and highly qualified broadband providers who are not designated as ETCs are not permitted to participate in the USF High Cost program," said Butterfield in introducing the bill.  

"Eliminating the ETC requirement would benefit low-income families in North Carolina and across the country by providing more choices for broadband service through the USF Lifeline Program while promoting competitive prices and high-quality service," he said. 

NCTA president Michael Powell had high praise for the move.  

“As America continues to wrestle with the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic, it has become clear that connecting all of our citizens to reliable broadband internet service is an urgent national priority," he said after the bill's introduction. "The Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act introduced today by Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) is pro-consumer legislation that will expedite and expand broadband deployment to unserved communities that need it the most.  

"The bill would repeal an outdated and unnecessary eligibility requirement that unfairly prevents qualified internet service providers from participating in federal universal support programs designed to close broadband access gaps and encourage adoption. By retiring the eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) designation, more ISPs with a proven track record of operating broadband networks would compete for government support. With Congress considering new strategies to advance access and adoption of broadband across America, now is the time to remove antiquated and unnecessary barriers that deter ISPs from delivering broadband service to every citizen.” 

"Charter applauds Congressman G. K. Butterfield for introducing the “Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act,” the company said in a statement. "High-speed connectivity has never been more important and this legislation would have a near-immediate impact on the digital divide, expanding access to broadband and opening doors to limitless opportunity for those who need it most. Far too many Americans remain shut out from the life-changing benefits of high-speed internet, and Congressman Butterfield’s legislation would ensure critical government funding programs are aligned with today’s connectivity needs."

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.