Universal Service reform: What it means for schools

Broadband providers and their customers, including schools, will face new compliance challenges as the web of federal programs supporting broadband service grows larger and more intertwined.

With broadband service becoming an increasingly essential tool for participating in modern life, federal policy makers are pursuing regulatory reforms that will fundamentally refocus the government’s “Universal Service” programs and related regulations to spur more broadband deployment and adoption—a marked departure from the historical primacy of circuit switched voice services.

These reforms promise to give community anchor institutions, including schools and libraries, access to a wider variety of affordable broadband service than ever before. The changes also promise to expand the range of broadband services eligible for support under the federal Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism (also known as the “e-Rate”).

At the same time, broadband service providers and their customers—including schools—will face new compliance challenges as the web of federal programs supporting broadband infrastructure grows larger and more intertwined.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has under consideration:

  • Multiple proposals—chiefly including the America’s Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Plan, proposed by large and midsize telecommunications companies, as well as an alternative plan championed by Google, Skype, Sprint, Vonage, and others—to transform the High-Cost Universal Service Support Mechanisms to provide direct support for broadband facilities and services, in accord with the blueprint outlined in the National Broadband Plan. These proposals would create the Connect America Fund (CAF), described last year in the  National Broadband Plan. The ABC Plan would provide $2.2 billion annually in support for broadband facilities and services where no unsupported competitor offers such services today, while the Google Plan would create separate technology-neutral Broadband Build and need-based Broadband Operations components. The ABC Plan also would create the Advanced Mobility/Satellite Fund (AMF), as described in the National Broadband Plan, to provide $300 million for mobile broadband service in unserved areas, including limited support for the installation costs of satellite broadband equipment installations.
  • A proposal to create a Low-Income Broadband Support pilot program, which could include support for deployment of network facilities and customer premises equipment, provision of broadband service, and digital literacy training to encourage sustainable broadband adoption.
  • Reforms to the Rural Health Care Support Mechanism, which has struggled to fulfill its promise since it was created. Complementary programs—such as Health Information Technology (HIT) loans, offered through the joint efforts of the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and USDA Community Connect grants—might help rejuvenate this program.

In addition, the FCC will be watching to see the results from the 2011 “Learning on the Go” wireless pilot program for schools and libraries, which could expand the range of mobile broadband services eligible for federal e-Rate support as early as Funding Year 2013.

As these proposals become reality, broadband providers and e-Rate customers are likely to see expanded service options and more affordable rates. However, compliance with all of the requirements of overlapping and complementary federal programs will become increasing complicated.

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