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Aug 18 -- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) seeks comment on how to address the immediate needs of legacy rate-of return support mechanisms, while balancing the Commission's objectives of maintaining its commitment to supporting broadband at evolving levels of service and also avoiding unnecessary duplication of support in light of other available funding programs. Comments are due on or before September 18, 2023, and reply comments are due on or before October 2, 2023.

The federal universal service high-cost program (also known as the Connect America Fund) is designed to ensure that consumers in rural, insular, and high-cost areas have access to modern communications networks capable of providing voice and broadband service, both fixed and mobile, at rates that are reasonably comparable to those in urban areas. The program fulfills this universal service goal by allowing eligible carriers who serve these areas to recover some of their costs from the federal Universal Service Fund.

With the NPRM, the Commission takes significant next steps in achieving its goal of ensuring all consumers, even those living in the costliest areas in the nation, have access to affordable and reliable broadband service so that they can work, learn, engage, and obtain essential services no matter where they live. The Commission also focuses on the future and seeks comment on how to reform its high-cost programs so that it can continue to efficiently promote broadband deployment and meaningfully support networks long term in the face of a significantly changing broadband landscape.

In the NPRM, the Commission seeks comment on how to amend legacy rate-of-return mechanisms to align them with the current broadband deployment and support environment. The broadband landscape has changed significantly in recent years. Rural consumers expect to receive higher quality and faster broadband service, which they need for work, school, healthcare, and more. To expedite the deployment of broadband, for example, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Infrastructure Act) and appropriated funds for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD Program) and other Federal programs to provide grants to pay for deployment. Many states have also instituted broadband deployment funding programs. In other areas, unsubsidized providers have deployed high-speed broadband alternatives. The Commission, meanwhile, maintains its commitment to promote deployment of broadband at evolving levels of service, while seeking to avoid unnecessary duplication of services that would be provided in the absence of high-cost universal service, whether by unsubsidized competitors or through awards made by other programs. Although reforms for legacy mechanisms are needed now, the Commission also explores in the concurrently adopted NOI ways that different support mechanisms can continue to provide meaningful support over the longer term once broadband networks have been ubiquitously deployed.

To address immediate needs, the Commission seeks comment on three key areas. First, the Commission seeks comment on a variety of reforms to legacy support mechanisms and appropriate funding, so that rate-of-return carriers are subject to a smaller reduction when the budget control mechanism applies. The Commission then seeks comment regarding appropriate deployment obligations for carriers receiving Connect America Fund Broadband Loop Support (CAF BLS) when the current deployment term ends this year. Finally, the Commission seeks comment regarding methodologies for preventing duplication of support between legacy high-cost universal service support mechanisms and funding provided by other Federal and state agencies for the deployment of broadband. . . .
 
Connect America Fund: https://www.fcc.gov/general/universal-service-high-cost-areas-connect-america-fund
FRN: https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2023-17486 [9 pages]

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