When the current NTCA Board of Directors was seated last February, they knew that they were coming into their newly elected seats at a time of great urgency for the rural telecommunications industry. With the FCC’s USF Transformation Order hanging over the industry and debates on models, transparency, bifurcation and the future of the Universal Service Fund hanging in the balance, this crew of 12 industry leaders—cooperative and commercial representatives from six regions of the country—knew they would have their plates full for their first few years.
But not only did they rise to the challenge, they really embraced their leadership role with the intent to partner with NTCA’s policy-setting committees to help carve a path forward for the industry. During our June board meeting in 2015, the NTCA board adopted some policy principles on universal service that they then shared with our Industry and Government Affairs Committees as high-level principles to help guide the policy development from those members who have rolled up their sleeves and have been doing a yeoman’s job of crunching numbers, running spreadsheets and working with our team on a daily basis on moving the industry and the FCC forward. These principles, in short, noted the following:
1) RLECs should be able to recover past investment and expenses consistent with USF rules in place at the time those investments were made.
2) RLECs should be able to recover future investments and expenses through a USF mechanism that is predictable, sufficient and sustainable.
3) Any obligations on RLECs arising in connection with USF support should be calibrated to the amount of available funding (i.e., no unfunded mandates, please).
4) Any model implemented must be accurate and transparent.
Today, the NTCA board came to Washington, D.C., to spend time with policymakers on the eighth floor of the FCC and to meet with key advisers from all five FCC commissioners’ offices, along with the leadership of the Wireline Competition Bureau. The group also held several meetings on Capitol Hill. The discussions were enlightening from both sides, and they provided a great opportunity for NTCA’s leadership to share their perspectives on behalf of our membership of 900 communications providers across the country. The challenges vary, from Iowa to Wyoming from Michigan to Alabama, but the message was the same. It is critical to have a path forward that takes away the regulatory uncertainty and lack of transparency into how USF will be distributed in the future. While USF will not be on the FCC’s open meeting agenda for January, every month thereafter has the opportunity to see an order circulating, and it is important for us to ensure that we stay at the table and remain constructive through every step of this process. The timing was also excellent, given the FCC’s status of broadband report last week that showed that rural broadband deployment is actually taking a backward slide and the NTCA board’s to articulate the challenges they have had in investing and getting funding with all of the regulatory overhang and uncertainty on cost recovery.
Chairman Wheeler made time to meet with the NTCA board prior to his remarks at the NTCA Fall Conference in Boston, as did Commissioner O’Rielly, and these top-level discussions go a long way in ensuring that members’ interests are represented. Meanwhile, the leadership of our Industry Committee came in last week and will be coming in early February, after the committee meeting in Salt Lake City this week, to continue to ensure that we are communicating continually through this process.