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FCC Commissioners Acknowledge Alaska’s Unique Role in Transforming Universal Services Fund for Broadband Era


Two commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), testifying at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, today acknowledged the unique nature of doing business in Alaska and the critical need for the Universal Services Fund to support telecommunications in Alaska.

Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Baker both made comments recognizing Alaska has unique characteristics and challenges, especially in rural areas, in serving many underserved communities with reliable Internet and phone service.

The testimony came in a hearing titled: “Universal Service: Transforming the High-Cost Fund for the Broadband Era.” The hearing focused on discussion of universal service reform, including efforts to refocus the fund from voice telephony to broadband and wireless service.

“I recognize reform is essential to modernize the fund, but I remain concerned about the transition to the new Connect America Fund,” Sen. Begich said. “It would be an unfortunate outcome if the transition complicated the rules companies operate under and ended up freezing out investment that would otherwise help the most rural and remote communities in Alaska and elsewhere. I look forward to working with the FCC on the special needs of Alaska telecoms who are trying to provide service in some of the nation’s most extreme conditions.”

“I agree Alaska is very special,” said Commissioner Baker. “Alaska already has an exemption from the High Cost Fund cap and we look forward to working with you to continue to address (those needs).”

Commissioner Clyburn suggested looking at encouraging pilot programs for tribal and insular states such as Alaska.

The debate, expected to last several months, is over the FCC’s proposal in the National Broadband Plan to overhaul the $8 billion Universal Services Fund to support expansion of broadband to underserved populations and create a sustainable fund. Alaska telecommunications companies are major benefactors of the fund, receiving $168 million in 2009 and $1.3 billion over the life of the High Cost Fund, one of the four programs under the Universal Services Fund.  Some Alaska companies are concerned dramatic changes to the program will unfairly impact to business in Alaska where a number of providers are operating with the smallest customer base in the largest geographic area.

Begich said he recognizes change is needed to create sustainability for the fund and modernize it, but it’s important to recognize the needs of Alaska and other remote areas and find ways to accommodate those needs.

Begich will host Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in Alaska over the upcoming 4th of July recess. The trip will include travel to rural Alaska so Clyburn can gain a better understanding of the needs of Alaskans.

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