The Government Accountability Office recently panned portions of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund high-cost program. It provided about $5 billion in 2019 to telecom carriers to support broadband deployment in unserved areas where the cost to provide broadband service is high. Congress asked the GAO for the review because about 18 million Americans don’t have access to broadband.
According to stakeholders GAO interviewed for its report, the FCC faces three key challenges to accomplish its high-cost program performance goals: (1) accuracy of the Commission’s broadband deployment data, (2) broadband availability on tribal lands, and (3) maintaining existing fixed-voice infrastructure and attaining universal mobile service. “For example, although the FCC adopted a more precise method of collecting and verifying broadband availability data, stakeholders expressed concern the revised data would remain inaccurate if carriers continue to overstate broadband coverage for marketing and competitive reasons,” stated the GAO.
The GAO said overstating coverage impairs the agency’s efforts to promote universal voice and broadband since an area can become ineligible for high-cost support if a carrier reports that service already exists in that area. It praised the Commission for taking actions to address the lack of broadband availability on tribal lands, such as making some spectrum available to tribes for wireless broadband in rural areas.
“However, tribal stakeholders told GAO that some tribes are unable to secure funding to deploy the infrastructure necessary to make use of spectrum for wireless broadband purposes,” the report states.
Overall, the GAO said the FCC should improve how it tracks the effectiveness of the program. It also recommended three additional goals. The GAO said the agency should:
- Revise the high-cost performance goals so that they are measurable and quantifiable
- Ensure high-cost performance measures align with key attributes of successful performance measures, including ensuring that measures clearly link with performance goals and have specified targets
- Publicly and periodically report on the progress the FCC has made on high-cost performance goals by, for example, including relevant performance information in the Annual Broadband Deployment Report or the USF Monitoring Report