Over the last few years, the FCC has made significant progress modernizing its universal service programs to make broadband available to all Americans. Importantly, the FCC in 2011 unanimously voted to transform the USF high-cost program for the large “price cap” carriers into the Connect America program, which supports rural broadband networks. This program is now moving into its second phase, in which $1.8 billion will soon be offered to expand broadband in price cap areas where deployment would not occur absent subsidies.
At the same time, however, another part of the universal service program that provides $2 billion annually in support for smaller rural carriers – called rate-of-return carriers – requires modernization. Senator Thune rightly recognizes this fact, and my colleagues and I recently made a commitment to him to take action on this issue by the end of this year. Modernization would ensure that this program reflects the realities of today’s marketplace and supports the deployment of broadband networks throughout rural America. We started this process last April when the Commission unanimously adopted a Further Notice that set forth the principles to guide our efforts in modernizing this program. Yesterday, we took another important step as my staff, Commissioner O’Rielly and his staff, Commissioner Clyburn’s staff, and staff from the Wireline Competition Bureau met with associations and others representing rate-of-return carriers to ask for their creative cooperation in getting this job done for rural consumers. I share Commissioner O’Rielly’s vision that we can get this done if we are prepared to roll up our sleeves and work together.
I look forward to working with the rate-of-return community and my colleagues here at the FCC to fulfill our commitment to Senator Thune. In short, we have to close the rural digital divide so that all Americans, regardless of where they live, can be equal participants in the social and economic life of the 21st century United States. We all share this goal, and modernizing this program is something everyone should be able to get behind.