Are we seeing a once in a generation shift in our approach to Universal Service?

For years, the Federal Communications Commission has administered the Universal Service Fund (USF), overseeing four programs designed to bring connectivity to rural areas, to target institutions like schools, libraries and healthcare facilities and to low-income consumers. Temporary COVID-19 connectivity programs appear to have presaged a shift from the FCC defining universal service programs to Congress appropriating funding and directing the future of universal service, all the while shifting the primary administrator of the funding. The bipartisan infrastructure law could represent a sea-change in how universal broadband is funded. First, the legislation moves oversight from the FCC to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an Executive Branch agency more easily influenced by the President. It also gives a significant role to the states to disburse funding for specific local projects. Second, the legislation implicitly rejects an “if you build it, they will come” approach to broadband, supplementing infrastructure funding with adoption funding to lower the digital divide. This funding will support programs aimed at the users of broadband services rather than broadband service providers. Finally, the legislation provides several targeted programs, like a Tribal Broadband fund and a fund for broadband to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and similar institutions. It is not clear whether these funds represent one-time universal service boosts or will become more permanent supplements to, or perhaps even replacements for, the USF.  But the signs of change are present nonetheless.

USF Tracker - November 30, 2021