WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of the Federal Communications Commission take a final vote later this year on a move to cap the total amount of the Universal Service Fund which subsidizes broadband infrastructure and access for schools, libraries and rural communities.

The fund supports four programs: the Connect America Fund for rural communities; LifeLine for low-income residents; the Rural Health Care program for rural health institutions and the E-Rate program with support for schools and libraries.

Blaine Hess

On E-Rate, “It provides funding for, what we call, connectivity — whether that’s phone lines, internet lines, broadband and wireless services for schools,” explained Blaine Hess, superintendent of schools in Jackson County.

“That’s a really important component of our educational programs is our internet access.”

In 2018, more than $8 billion total was dispersed through the Universal Service Fund.

Up to now, the amount has grown each year drawing on dollars from wireless providers and telecommunications companies that offset their contributions through customer phone and internet fees.

Under a preliminary vote earlier this year, the fund would be capped at $11.42 billion indefinitely with adjustments for inflation.

“We believe capping the Fund overall will strike the appropriate balance between ensuring adequate funding for the universal service programs while minimizing the financial burden on ratepayers and providing predictability for program participants,” an FCC notice read.

The concern for Hess and others is that such a cap on the total Universal Service Fund would mean cuts to the four individual programs at a time when demand for faster, more reliable internet service continues to grow.

The four different programs could have to compete for funding.

Already, the E-Rate program alone is limited to $4.15 billion annually. This latest move would lift that. Additionally, a 2014 expansion is set to expire in 2020.

“This is one of the major funding streams for school systems. In fact, it’s the fourth-largest federal funding stream we have,” Hess told WMOV Radio in Ravenswood, a MetroNews affiliate, from Washington, D.C.

“Even in our areas of the state where we have decent connectivity with schools, we don’t necessarily have that in our communities and these E-Rate funds through the Federal Communications Commission impact the public’s access to broadband.”

Many members of Congress have opposed the proposed cap.

“This isn’t direct legislation that comes through Congress, but they do have influence in talking with those (FCC) commissioners to make the needs of West Virginia known,” Hess said.

Hess was meeting with members of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation about E-Rate and other issues as part of his trip to the District for the meeting of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Earlier this week, Hess was sworn in as a new member of the organization’s executive board.

Other new members came from states that included New York, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Minnesota.