, the superintendent of the Hot Springs School District
, was appointed last week to the board of the Universal Service Administrative Company, or USAC
, a nonprofit entity that operates under the auspices of the Federal Communications Commission
. (He'll keep his job as head of the Hot Springs district.)
USAC plays a significant role in the telecom world. In 2013, it disbursed over $8 billion dollars nationwide to projects meant to expand communications access, including hefty rural broadband infrastructure subsidies and the "Lifeline" program for low-income people (you may know it as the initiative behind the much-maligned "Obamaphone"
The USAC board also oversees the crucial E-rate program
that helps low-income and rural schools and libraries gain Internet connectivity, and a similar initiative for rural health care providers.
Hernandez's background in public education is what makes him qualified for the appointment — the FCC requires the board include a representative from a school eligible to receive E-rate discounts. Hernandez was one of six new appointments
recently chosen by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
to occupy the 19-member USAC board.
Before becoming superintendent in Hot Springs last May
, Hernandez served as deputy commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education
, where he devoted much energy to maximizing the amount of E-rate dollars Arkansas received from the feds.
Readers may remember the tangled 2014 fight between the state's telecoms and other powerful business players
— including the Walton Family Foundation — regarding the build-out of broadband infrastructure to rural schools. Telecoms, frightened that the public sector might impinge on their market share, wanted to prevent K-12 schools from using a taxpayer-funded fiber optic network originally built for colleges and universities. Among the facts that emerged in the fracas: The state Department of Information Services
had been starkly negligent in securing E-rate money, thus leaving tens of millions of federal dollars on the table, according to a report by a legislative consultant at the time.
ADE Commissioner Johnny Key
said in a letter to FCC Chairman Wheeler that Hernandez had been instrumental in changing that situation and had helped Arkansas school districts obtain "more than $50 million annually in E-rate funding."
"Dr. Hernandez spearheaded a statewide effort to mobilize superintendents and local communities to better leverage Arkansas’s E-rate funding. Under his leadership, a public-private partnership was established to provide every school district in Arkansas with a state-of-the-art fiber optic connection," Key wrote. A number of other education players also wrote letters to the FCC supporting Hernandez's appointment, including former U.S. Sen. David Pryor
Even if you've never heard of USAC, you probably pay a small amount into its coffers every month. Take a look at your phone bill and you'll likely see a line labeled something like "Federal Universal Service Fee."
The FCC levies this fee on telecom providers to contribute to the provision of "universal service"
— a decidedly optimistic mandate, created by Congress in 1996, that "all Americans should have access to a baseline level of telecommunications services." Among other things, this means extending infrastructure to places where it would otherwise be unprofitable for telecoms to invest — such as areas with low population densities and many miles to cover in fiber optic cables. (Some have criticized the subsidies as a giveaway to telecoms.)
A political point incidental to Hernandez's appointment: It's odd that those inclined to shout about the Lifeline program as a welfare giveaway
don't seem to make as much noise about subsidizing internet build-out in rural America, which comprised a much larger share of USAC disbursements in 2014. By the way, Arkansas being a rural, poor state, will get far more money back from the feds than we pay in as consumers. In 2013, Arkansans paid about $62 million into USAC's Universal Service Fund, according to FCC records
. That same year, Arkansas received about $138 million in federal dollars from USAC
for its various programs.