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PSC Finally Gives Green Light to Cell-Phone Service Provider

Feb. 21, 2008 — The Public Services Commission voted Friday to give cell-phone service provider Centennial Communications status to collect federal Universal Service Fund (USF) grants as an eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) — three years after Centennial first applied.
The USF is a Federal Communications Commission-controlled program designed to bring better telecommunications services to rural and insular areas. Funds must be spent on phone service in the territory. Vitelco receives USF funds, but no wireless cell-phone carriers in the territory do.
Many stateside jurisdictions, though not all, give cell-phone companies status to receive USF funds. If Centennial gets such status, they become eligible to receive about $1.3 million annually. Since other ETC recipients of USF funds would be unaffected, it would increase the total amount of money available to improve telecommunications infrastructure.
The FCC makes the final determination, but usually defers to the local regulatory recommendation — in this case, that of the PSC. Centennial first applied to the PSC for ETC status in 2005. In December 2006, the PSC scheduled a vote on the matter, but has delayed the vote several times since, citing concerns that the commission did not have jurisdiction. (See "PSC Slates Feb. Vote on Centennial Grant Status.")
Once the Legislature clarified the law the PSC moved very quickly, Centennial attorney William Roughton said during a brief recess in the hearing.
The Senate passed a bill in December clarifying existing law and specifically granting the PSC jurisdiction to grant or withhold ETC status from cell-phone service providers. In Friday's order, the PSC made its certification retroactive to December 2006, when the question was first placed on the PSC docket. When the FCC next meets, it is widely expected they it reduce the amount of funding available for additional carriers, reducing the amount of money Centennial could receive.
Having the application pre-approved may improve the likelihood of the territory getting a larger share of the USF pie. PSC Chairman Joseph Boschulte has also sent a letter to the FCC asking the Virgin Islands be exempted because of its unique size, geography and needs. The FCC has no reason not to exempt the territory, as it is very small and is, in fact, in a very different situation than most U.S. jurisdictions, Roughton said.
"If (the FCC) doesn't approve it, then they don't," Commissioner Donald G. Cole said. "But if we don't ask, they won't. This is the only way to try to get this funding."
Voting in favor of Centennial's ETC application were Boschulte, Cole, Verne David, Alecia Wells and M. Thomas Jackson. Commissioner Sirri Hamad was absent.
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