Hasty USF Fund Changes Could Leave ‘Rusty Towers’ Across Rural America

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C Spire’s Eric Graham and NTCA’s Shirley Bloomfield testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Photos by Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers

Ten years of flat funding in the FCC’s Mobility Fund have led to a situation of wireless carriers “robbing” from potential new rural customers in order to keep existing broadband service operating. Witnesses told lawmakers on a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday the FCC needs to hit “pause” before going ahead with planned funding changes to re-distribute monies for rural broadband.  They said the FCC needs to fix a few things first to ensure money goes where it will actually do some good.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has criticized the Mobility Fund, which is part of its Universal Service Fund, for “wasteful” spending of some $25 million each month to subsidize wireless carriers in areas where private capital has been spent building out networks. He wants to redirect that money to bring 4G LTE coverage to rural areas. But NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association and the Competitive Carriers Association as well as several small wireless companies have told the agency the issue isn’t that simple.

The FCC’s plan to shift funding from existing networks to new areas means “towers that were built last year could be shut down,” said C Spire Wireless SVP Strategic Relations Eric Graham. His company operates wireless networks covering nearly the entire state of Mississippi. “This creates a rusty tower problem for rural America where the landscape will be dotted with rusty towers that are no longer in use.”

The agency’s coverage maps are inaccurate and those need to be fixed first, witnesses agreed. The maps need to be standardized. Some carriers have dual maps, for engineering and marketing, that don’t match, said Graham. The Commission itself knows the map it displays on its website isn’t right, added Graham, reading four qualifiers about indicated coverage as he held up a printout of that page.

The funding issue is dire, said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “Carriers have sharply reduced rural investment” in the wake of FCC updates to its USF program in 2011. Member carriers are having to cancel rural broadband deployment plans and lay off staff, “all due to the availability of USF funds,” said Bloomfield. They are hoping to see “last year’s promise” of USF reform become a reality, she added. “If rural broadband is really a priority, the time to act is now.”

Graham, meanwhile cited one estimate that it could take $25 billion to deliver broadband to unserved areas but only some $450 million in USF support is available. He suggested streamlining broadband infrastructure siting processes at the federal and local level would help “so that one report is okay for multiple agencies.” This would help companies that want to lay fiber as well as those who want to site wireless infrastructure.

June 21, 2017     

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