U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, will convene a hearing titled “The Universal Service Fund and Rural Broadband Investment” at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. The subcommittee will examine the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund and its capabilities for the deployment of broadband in rural America.
- Mr. Michael Balhoff, CFA, Senior Partner, Charlesmead Advisors, LLC
- Ms. Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association
- Mr. Eric Graham, Senior Vice President, Strategic Relations, C Spire
- Dr. Karen Rheuban, Medical Director for the Office of Telemedicine and Director for the Center for Telehealth, University of Virginia
* Witness list subject to change
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet
This hearing will take place in Russell Senate Office Building, Room 253. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
NOTE: Witness added on 6/15/2017.
Chairman Roger Wicker
When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act in 1996, it made clear that all Americans should have access to quality communications services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates. From that time, the Universal Service Fund, established by the FCC, has been a primary mechanism for achieving universal communications service across the country. It has supported the deployment of communications networks to rural and remote geographic areas, and it has provided essential support to build-out networks to health-care facilities and other institutions that would likely go without service.
In 2011, the FCC significantly reformed parts of the USF program in an attempt to address past shortcomings and inefficiencies, particularly when deploying communications services to high-cost rural areas. Many of these reforms stemmed from economic assumptions and other judgments about how the Commission anticipated funding needs for service in hard-to-reach areas. They also aimed to make support more efficient, while modernizing programs and ensuring next-generation communications technologies and services reach rural areas.
Despite reforms, challenges within USF persist. These challenges include the program’s ability to support meaningful investments into broadband deployment and conduct necessary maintenance on established networks. As a result, this has left a disparity in quality communications service between urban and rural areas.
Inadequate data collection methods are also one of USF’s challenges, leading to an inefficient distribution of funds to truly underserved and unserved areas. To address this issue, I recently joined Senator Manchin in introducing the “Rural Wireless Access Act,” which has the support of several of my colleagues, including Senators Schatz, Fischer, Klobuchar, Moran, and Peters. This bill would require the FCC to standardize its data collection methods to ensure that USF support is directed to rural communities – in Mississippi and across the nation – that are actually in need.
Reliable data is a critical step toward eliminating inefficiencies within the USF program and fulfilling the statutory goal of universal service. I appreciate the efforts of all stakeholders involved to improve data collection at the FCC. As these efforts continue, it is important that this data be collected quickly so as not to delay the delivery of essential communications services, through programs like Phase II of the Mobility Fund, to communities in need.
Ensuring the deployment of broadband service to rural health-care providers is another critical component of the USF program. Today, Senator Schatz and I will reintroduce the “Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead on Telehealth Act.” With this bill, several health-care providers that offer service predominantly to rural areas would qualify for support under USF’s rural health-care program. Mississippi is a leader in telemedicine and is driving the use of innovative technologies to improve the quality, accessibility, and affordability of care. Robust broadband connections, supported through USF, are vital to the adoption of this life-saving technology.
The importance of our efforts to deliver broadband service to rural areas cannot be understated. Job creation, economic development, and access to digital innovation – such as telemedicine, fully self-driving cars, and smart communities – have become increasingly reliant on the presence of high-quality, high-capacity broadband networks. It is imperative for all Americans to have access to the communications services promised by USF programs.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the state of broadband investment in rural America and how the USF program is affecting the market. I also hope the witnesses will offer recommendations on how the Commission can address inefficiencies within USF to ensure that the economic and digital opportunities afforded by broadband reach our rural communities.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Michael BalhoffCFA, Senior PartnerCharlesmead Advisors, LLC
Ms. Shirley BloomfieldChief Executive OfficerNTCA-The Rural Broadband Association
Mr. Eric GrahamSenior Vice President, Strategic RelationsC Spire
Dr. Karen RheubanMedical Director for the Office of Telemedicine; Director for the Center for TelehealthUniversity of Virginia