Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today expressed their continued concerns about the insufficiency of the FCC’s high-cost support and the inaccuracy of the FCC’s data on broadband deployment, and an official from United States Cellular Corp. suggested that the FCC should go back to the drawing board and develop a more accurate model, rather than relying on small carriers to invest millions of dollars and drive millions of miles to test bad data.
In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) said that although members of the FCC, including Chairman Ajit Pai, committed to the committee last year to do something about the high-cost support program, there has still been “no economic analysis of what these cuts are doing to rural America.”
He added, “The FCC has not conducted an analysis of what the cuts are doing to companies that are trying to deploy broadband” in rural areas, and “the impact of the FCC failure is even greater in tribal lands.”
He said that the difference between projected need for high-cost support and capped amount available in South Dakota alone will be $11 million in 12 months.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) said that “in Minnesota, the insufficiency in high cost funding is estimated to cut support by $7.6 million over a 12-month period.”
The FCC’s plans to deal with this issue at some point in the future won’t help those who are affected now, she said. “You can’t make up for it if you can’t get into college because you couldn’t get AP classes because you’re on tribal lands” and need broadband for remote access to the class, she added.
As for the broadband mapping issue, she said that recent reports by the Government Accountability Office “show that the FCC’s broadband data on tribal lands frequently overcounts availability.”
Witness Denny Law, general manager and chief executive officer of Golden West Telecommunications, which is based in Wall, S.D., said, “We miss the mark as a nation if we treat the broadband challenge as a one-time declaration of ‘success’ just for the preliminary act of connecting a certain number of locations.”
He said that a recent Golden West survey of its customers found that 23% of respondents use an Internet connection to work from home. “Nor are these stories, I believe, unique to Golden West or South Dakota — instead, my sense is that they are repeated in rural areas across the country, especially in places where smaller rural operators have, like Golden West, led the charge in deploying robust, high-capacity, low-latency networks and in taking pride in the delivery of high-quality customer service for the communities in which we live,” he added.
But “cutting USF support cuts the legs” of rural broadband deployment efforts, Mr. Law said.
He also called for an “update” in the speed of service supported by the Rural Utilities Service’s programs, while urging that past RUS investments not be “undercut” by funding overbuilds.
Grant Spellmeyer, vice president–federal affairs and public policy at U.S. Cellular, said that many areas his company would like to test as part of the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II challenge process “lack sufficient roads” to meet the FCC’s requirements for the location of tests. He said that U.S. Cellular has collected 10 terabytes of information but “that has only managed us to drive 3% of our ETC [eligible telecommunications carrier] footprint.”
He added that the FCC’s broadband data is “so flawed that we expect to successfully challenge 34% of the areas we have tested.”
Godfrey Enjady, GM of Mescalero Apache Telecom, Inc., and president of the National Tribal Telecommunications Association, said, “To put it bluntly, the Universal Service Fund high-cost program is vastly underfunded. Capital and operational expense caps must be eliminated. FCC Chairman Pai has even questioned the wisdom of these caps. My company is experiencing major negative impact from the implementation of the operational expense cap and we are in the process of working with the Commission on a positive solution. An examination and reform of the USF contribution regime is long overdue, and may eliminate any need for the arbitrary budget cap.”
Chairman Thune asked about the effect of using inaccurate data in the MF-II process.
Mr. Spellmeyer said, that because MF-II awards support for 10 years, “it’s going to be 2029, 2030 before we can come back” and seek funding to serve the unserved areas.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) asked whether the FCC’s 90-day extension of the MF-II challenge window is long enough.
Mr. Spellmeyer said, “It was helpful. … But we’ve only gotten to 3% of the locations we should get to. … Frankly, I think we need to send the FCC back to the table to refine the model that led to these bad maps in the first place.”
Mona Thompson, GM of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority in Eagle Butte, S.D., also testified. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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