The FCC today adopted reforms to the Universal Service program’s rural healthcare program, expanding the types of expenses that can be covered by the program but also imposing a $400 million cap on the program. In addition the commission set in motion a plan to allow wireless service providers to share 100 MHz of spectrum with government users who currently are the sole users of the spectrum. And the commission took action aimed at expanding the ability of public service answering points to accept text messages sent to 9-1-1.

Rural Health Care
The reforms to the Universal Service rural health care program result from an order adopted at today’s monthly FCC meeting that also gives the program a new name. In keeping with the nomenclature used for the reformed high-cost Universal Service program, known as the Connect America Fund, the new program is to be known as Rural Healthcare Connect.

In addition to the cap, reforms made to the program include:

  • Allowing funds to support non-rural members of consortia that include a majority of rural members
  • Support provided for dark fiber leases as well as broadband services – and for facilities constructed and owned by the healthcare facility when that would be the most effective option
  • Matching healthcare provider contributions for supported services on a two-for-one basis
  • Creation of a pilot program involving rural nursing homes with a $50 million budget over three years

At today’s meeting FCC officials said the reforms were made in response to lessons learned from a pilot test of the rural healthcare program which they said helped improve patient care while also minimizing costs.

The FCC’s two Republican commissioners – Ajit Pai and Robert McDowell –argued that the commission was moving too fast in implementing the nursing home pilot program and expressed concerns that funding demand might exceed the cap. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he was confident there would be sufficient funding for seven to eight years.

More spectrum
The spectrum that the FCC aims to make available to mobile network operators on a shared basis is in the 3550-3650 MHz band and is currently held by government users who would continue to have access to the spectrum.  In a notice of proposed rulemaking adopted today, the commission suggests that in order to maximize the use of the spectrum by mobile operators while also avoiding disruption to current users, mobile network operators should use the spectrum for small cell use, which would minimize the need for exclusion zones.

At today’s FCC meeting Genachowski said the plan could help the U.S. secure “global leadership” in two areas – including small cells and the development of technologies to enable spectrum sharing.

The idea of commercial and government users sharing spectrum originated in recommendations made by a presidential advisory council several months ago.

Small cells are smaller less costly wireless base stations designed to enhance coverage in high-usage areas. They have been an area of considerable wireless carrier focus in recent months.

Text to 9-1-1
The FCC’s action on texting to 9-1-1 took the form of a further notice of proposed rulemaking which builds on a voluntary commitment recently made by the nation’s four largest mobile operators — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.  The operators agreed to support the ability to send text messages to 9-1-1 by 2014. In addition the carriers said that beginning next year they would provide bounce-back messages whenever a customer sends a 9-1-1 text message to a public service answering point (PSAP) that cannot accept text messages.

The proposed rulemaking stops short of requiring PSAPs to accept text messages, but FCC officials argued that PSAPs will have an incentive to add this capability as a result of the rulemaking. The FNPRM also seeks input on whether all wireless network operators should be required to support customers’ ability to send text messages to 9-1-1.

A PSAP in York County, Virginia this week demonstrated its ability to accept text messages from Verizon Wireless.