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Commission Claims CAF Rules Balance Flexibility and Accountability

Randy Sukow / Oct 25, 2019

The current rules for carriers collecting Connect America Fund (CAF) support to build rural broadband require them to conduct quarterly speed and latency tests of their services to confirm they are delivering true broadband to their subscribers. Today the FCC unanimously adopted an Order on Reconsideration clarifying the quarterly testing requirements. The Commissioners assured that the rules will not place undue burdens on carriers.

“Today we decide to closely review the existing testing methodologies and make targeted changes that will provide flexibility and eliminate unnecessary burdens on carriers while still ensuring the carriers are accountable to consumers, to taxpayers and, of course, the Commission,” Chairman Ajit Pai said during this morning’s monthly FCC agenda meeting. “Rural Americans must have a broadband connection that will consistently deliver the promise that modern applications offer.”

However, a review of a draft of the order released earlier this month, shows that the FCC rejected most requests for flexibility from rural petitioners.

The Commission, for example, declined to change a rule covering the daily test period of 6 p.m. to midnight. While those are peak usage hours in most of the United States, petitioners claimed that business and home Internet traffic does not vary as much in rural areas. At the same time, requiring staff to conduct evening testing beyond normal business hours could be a financial burden for some carriers, they said. But the FCC said it was premature to act on such a change. “Once the testing regime is implemented and carriers have installed the necessary technology and software to test the speed and latency of their networks on a routine basis, we do not anticipate that extensive staffing will be required to monitor the testing process,” according to the order.

The FCC also did not alter a rule that reduces CAF support for carriers that are not in compliance with speed and latency requirements after testing. Some petitioners suggested giving rural carriers a six-month grace period to locate and repair infrastructure flaws. They claimed that problems affecting performance are sometimes out of carriers’ control.

“We disagree,” the order says.  “As a condition of receiving high-cost support, carriers must commit not only to building out broadband-capable networks to a certain number of locations, but also to providing those locations with a specific, defined level of service.”

The current rules require carriers to conduct speed and latency tests on 50 sites per service tier in every state the carrier serves. The Commission made some provision for smaller carriers with fewer subscribers available to test. Even with those provisions, “we recognize that a few carriers facing unique circumstances may find it extraordinarily difficult to find a sufficient number of subscriber locations to test,” the Commission said in the order. The FCC decided to leave the rule intact but established a waiver process for very small carriers.

“Providing broadband to the most remote and rural areas of this country is not for the faint of heart,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at this morning’s meeting. “Consumers and businesses can be spread few and far between, terrain can be rough, and the deployment season can be brutally short. The economics are hard, and the business case is not always easy.” But in the end, she joined with other commissioners in seeking a high level of accountability.

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