NRRI 19-02 State Universal Service Funds 2018: Updating the Numbers

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Universal Service is a key component of both federal and state communications policy. Its goal is to ensure that regardless of where they live, all citizens have access to robust, reliable communications services, including broadband connectivity, at affordable rates, with “reasonably comparable service” across the country. The four Federal Universal Service funds (FUSF)—High Cost/Connect America (CAF), Schools and Libraries (E-Rate), Lifeline, and Rural Healthcare—provide financial support to carriers (and, in the case of the Lifeline fund, consumers) to bring 21st century communications services to users across the country.

In the spirit of Cooperative Federalism, where the states and the federal government work together to support all citizens, many states also provide support through state universal service funds (SUSF) that address the specific communications issues faced by their constituents. These state funds broaden the reach of the federal fund by providing increased levels of funding and support targeted to the areas where the state legislature and the public utility commissions have determined that such support is necessary. Because these funds are managed by the regulators closest to the ultimate recipient of the services they provide, they are generally more specific than the federal funds, both in contribution requirements and disbursements. Thus, the state funds not only support the four areas covered by the federal fund, but also provide funding for specific state needs, such as public access payphones, broadband adoption, and specialized services for the vision and hearing impaired, to name just a few.

NRRI’s 2018 State USF review examines the way in which the state universal service funds provide support beyond that offered by the federal fund. This paper updates the status of state universal service support since NRRI’s last USF review in 2014. It examines changes to the state USF funds between 2014 and 2018 due to legislation, changes to intrastate access charges, and the increasing focus on broadband as the key communications goal for the 21st century. The paper addresses the ways in which carriers and end users contribute to the funds, including exploring the new contribution methodologies adopted by a number of states to ensure that the funds remain both viable and relevant.

As consumers have increasingly moved away from traditional landlines to VoIP, wireless, and other intermodal communications services, the funding available for state universal programs (historically based on a percentage of intrastate revenues) has changed as well, leading to a number of states refocusing their contribution methodologies from revenue to connections in an attempt to stabilize the funds without overburdening consumers. The paper examines those efforts, as well as changes in the size and direction of the funds themselves.

The 2018 NRRI USF study provides state regulators and legislators with information that they may use to assess and, where appropriate, modify their state funds to address changes in the way in which customers obtain and use communications services. The facts provided by the study will help the states make decisions on their funds, the FCC to understand the impacts of the ICC/USF Transformation Order, the Connect America Fund, and changes to Lifeline and other programs on the states, and will provide input on the way in which fund contributions may be structured in the future.

In all, 42 states and the District of Columbia provide some form of state universal service support in addition to the monies provided by the Federal funds. This number has dropped from the 45 states that provided support in 2014, based on the discontinuance of the Delaware and West Virginia broadband funds and changes to our understanding of the universal service program in Hawaii. While not specifically a USF fund, Michigan provides support to carriers via an intrastate access restructuring fund, so we include that fund here. Eight states, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia, have no state funds. Although it has no fund, Florida requires all carriers to provide Lifeline service. Massachusetts has no state fund but provides broadband support through a State grant program.

State USF support includes funding for telecommunications relay service for the deaf and hard of hearing (33 states), support for telecommunications equipment, such as teletypewriters, captioned telephones, and, in some states, iPads and mobile phones (19 states), high-cost support (22 states), funds for broadband access for schools and libraries (5 states), funding for Lifeline (17 states), and dedicated broadband funding (5 states). The majority of the states with state funds direct contributions to specific areas. Two states, Texas and Washington, use different methodologies. Texas collects its USF as a single lump sum, which is then disbursed to carriers by the Public Utility Commission based on need. Washington funds universal service through the state’s General Fund and then directs support to specific funds.

The largest portion of SUSF funding (both in the number of states with a fund and the dollar value of that fund) continues to be directed to supporting carriers that provide service in high-cost or remote areas. Changes to the High-Cost Funds over the study period, including the reduction or elimination of funding in areas served by competitive providers, have reduced the size of the High-Cost Fund in some cases or redirected monies to other uses in other cases.

Nine states have established specialized Intrastate Access Support (IAS) funds specifically designed to mitigate the effects of access charge reductions on carriers. For example, Michigan’s fund is designed to mitigate the effects of bringing intrastate access charges into alignment with interstate access charges on rural carriers. Where the states support IAS reform but do not designate a separate fund, the value of those funds is included in the High-Cost Fund.
State Universal Service funding was reduced just under 8 percent over the study period, from $1,842,521,774 in 2014 to $1,708,908,846 in 2017. The reduction was largely driven by reductions in high cost support. The overall reduction in funding was tempered by significant increases in broadband and Lifeline funding in California, as well as increases in the contribution percentage in California and other states, and increases in TRS and E-Rate funding across all states.

Unlike the federal fund, which assesses all providers in the same manner, contributors to the state USF vary by state and often by fund. All of the states assess traditional price cap and rural rate of return wireline carriers, including Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs). Twenty-nine states assess interexchange (long distance) carriers. Thirty states assess wireless providers. Seventeen states assess cable voice providers. Twenty-eight states assess non-cable, interconnected VoIP providers. Eight states assess end users. Six states assess paging companies. Washington continues to fund USF through a contribution from the state’s general fund.
The majority of states assess all providers of intrastate telecommunications services, using FCC Form 277 data, regardless of the type of company or the technology they use. Where the states do not assess providers that use alternate technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), many of these providers contribute voluntarily to the state funds. One VoIP provider contributes voluntarily in New York and one cable company contributes voluntarily in Utah. Some VoIP providers in Oregon also contribute voluntarily.

The picture is less clear for the electric cooperatives that are beginning to offer broadband services as a result of the CAF auctions. Those cooperatives that provide both broadband and intrastate telecommunications services directly to the public generally contribute to the state funds. The cooperatives that simply offer customers broadband connectivity and team with other providers to offer voice services may defer to their partners to provide state USF support. It remains to be seen how these companies will be assessed in the future.

State Universal Service programs are a significant tool for meeting the important policy goal of ensuring access to telecommunications for all citizens, regardless of where they live or their financial status. Continued study and review of the way in which the states meet this goal will remain an important public utility commission activity, now and in the future.
The State Fund Overview table summarizes the findings of the 2018 NRRI Universal Service Survey.