The Competitive Carriers Association and a bipartisan group of federal legislators are urging Ajit Pai to move forward with the second phase of the Universal Service Fund’s Mobility Fund. But the new FCC chairman has his own ideas for expanding wireless broadband in rural and underserved areas.
The first phase of the Mobility Fund provided one-time support to operators to help “close gaps in mobile wireless service,” as the FCC said last year, and the commission has been analyzing coverage data to expand on that effort in a second phase as federal subsidies shift from phones to broadband. The FCC is slated to vote on Pai’s proposal to reconsider those subsidies when it meets on Feb. 23, however.
“Right now, the federal government spends about $25 million of taxpayer money each month to subsidize wireless carriers in areas where private capital has been spent building out networks. This is perhaps a textbook definition of waste: public funds being spent to do what the private sector has already done,” Pai wrote in a blog post on Medium this week.
“Three weeks from now, we will vote on redirecting that spending to something far more useful: bringing 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today,” he continued. “I am proposing to couple our detailed coverage data with a robust challenge process to identify the areas most in need of service. And I propose using a competitive ‘reverse auction’ to allocate this support to preserve and extend 4G LTE coverage throughout our nation.”
That plan may not sit well with smaller carriers that are using those federal subsidies to provide service in rural areas, however. CCA this week urged Pai to support the USF, citing a recent effort from Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Joe Manchin, D-West Va., asking Pai to prioritize mobile broadband in those regions.
“(T)here clearly is broad bipartisan support in ensuring sufficient and predictable USF support,” CCA CEO Steven Berry said in prepared remarks. “Consumers in unserved and underserved areas deserve the same services as their urban counterparts and a robust, well-crafted USF program including Mobility Fund Phase II and an equitable phase down of legacy support over the next several years to help achieve the important goal of closing the digital divide. The great states in America’s heartland deserve access to high speed mobile broadband; it is an opportunity that deserves action.”
It isn’t clear whether CCA and Pai can come to an agreement over how best to expand mobile wireless services to users in underserved areas. Given the Republicans' new 2-1 majority on the FCC, though, it appears all but certain Pai’s plan will move forward later this month.