The Universal Service Administrative Company is looking at robotic process automation to streamline checks and balances before it subsidizes telephone and internet access in high-cost areas.
The nonprofit company established to manage the Universal Service Fund—which supports high-cost, low-income and critical services in need of telephone and internet connections—wants to automate its arduous verification process and is looking to the robotic process automation market for help.
The Universal Service Administrative Company was established under the Federal Communication Commission in 1996 to administer the Universal Service Fund, which takes in about $10 billion annually through surcharges to long distance carriers used “to subsidize telephone service to low-income households and high-cost areas,” according to the FCC.
The program is focused on delivering service to four underserved or critical groups, including:
- High Cost Support Mechanism: Provides support to certain qualifying telephone companies that serve high cost areas, thereby making phone service affordable for the residents of these regions.
- Low Income Support Mechanism: Assists low-income customers by helping to pay for monthly telephone charges as well as connection charges to initiate telephone service.
- Rural Health Care Support Mechanism: Allows rural health care providers to pay rates for telecommunications services similar to those of their urban counterparts, making telehealth services affordable.
- Schools and Libraries Support Mechanism: Popularly known as the "E-Rate," provides telecommunication services (e.g., local and long-distance calling, high-speed lines), internet access, and internal connections (the equipment to deliver these services) to eligible schools and libraries.
About half of the fund’s annual disbursement—$5 billion—goes toward the High Cost program to ensure “rates for broadband and voice services are reasonably comparable in every region of the U.S.,” according to a request for information posted Tuesday.
In order to be eligible for funds, participating carriers must supply the USAC with deployment data, such as the exact geocoordinates for new services. The information is submitted through the High Cost Broadband Portal, which executes some automated checks, “flagging errors such as ineligible latitude and longitude coordinates, along with a slew of other system validations,” the RFI states.
The remaining checks are done by the High Cost verifications team, which review carrier-submitted data on connection speeds, deployment dates and more to ensure they are providing the level of service promised under the agreements. At the end of their review, the verification team confers a “pass” or “fail” status for each proposal.
After the initial automated checks, the rest of the process is labor intensive, including repeated exchanges between the verification team and the carriers to get additional information. Sometimes the responses come in the form of structured data that can easily be input in a digital system; other times it is unstructured and requires significant human intervention before it is usable.
The team has already started work to automate more of this process through a Verification Case Management System that will include the HCBP, a verification workflow tool and incorporate user interfaces from customer carriers. As this project matures, the team is looking at the potential for robotic process automation to further streamline the process.
To start, the company is looking at RPA for three areas:
- Automating a large volume of email transactions and metrics generation that are currently done manually.
- Performing automated verifications of evidence submitted by carriers in numerous formats, including GIS data.
- Synthesizing data to find patterns and commonalities to arrive at an optimal process design.
The RFI includes a list of questions for vendors, including specifics of their automation process, ease-of-use of the final product and level of customization available.
Responses are due by 2 p.m. August 28. Questions on the RFI are due by 2 p.m. August 18.