Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune on Wednesday said he’s open to funneling a potential tranche of broadband infrastructure funding through the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund.
“I think the USF could be a way to figure out how we channel and move money in the right direction — get the most lead on the targets, so to speak, to get results,” Thune told reporters following a hearing on how to best allocate funds under a possible infrastructure bill.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he would ask Congress for a $1 trillion infrastructure package, but he did not mention broadband investment. Thune said that while he believes broadband will ultimately be included in the White House package, “it’s hard to say exactly what their plan might entail.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, NTCA – Rural Broadband Association Chief Executive Shirley Bloomfield said the FCC’s experience in doling out funds for broadband projects makes it the ideal administrator for a larger broadband infrastructure push. She added that changes to the USF program in March 2016 — including specific geolocation reporting requirements for broadband infrastructure projects — have increased the financial accountability of the program.
The Universal Service Fund allocates $4.5 billion annually, from user fees, for rural broadband investment. Additional congressional appropriations would be on top of that, and Thune said he believes the USF could administer congressional funds appropriately given their experience in the broadband marketplace.
“I like what the FCC is doing, I think that’s a step in the right direction,” Thune said. “Having visibility into that — into all those funds — and figuring how best to streamline them and be able to have some accountability measures, I think is something I’d like to see the FCC do more with. And USF might be the mechanism to do that.”
When asked about the feasibility of using the program to administer a broadband infrastructure package, FCC spokesman Will Wiquist said Chairman Ajit Pai “supports including broadband in any infrastructure package and is happy to work with Congress on the best way to do that.”
Thune didn’t rule out other mechanisms to fund broadband deployment, including block grants to state and local governments, tax credits and public-private partnerships. “We’re taking all of this into consideration,” he said.
Last month, Democratic lawmakers introduced an infrastructure plan that called for allocating $20 billion over the next decade to expand high-speed internet. Republican lawmakers haven’t put forth a similar proposal.