Congress, Industry Execs Agree on Broadband in Revamped Universal Service Fund

Universal Service March 12th, 2009

, Reporter,

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2009 – The Obama administration’s priority in broadband deployment injected an undercurrent of excitement into a Thursday hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, the Internet.

While the hearing was scheduled to be focused on reforming the universal service fund high-cost program, both members and witness spent much of the hearing debating how best to use the fund to deploy broadband internet access to all Americans.

“Broadband has emerged as a critical part of our telecommunications infrastructure,” said Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va. “New funding sources must be tapped” in order to bring access to unserved areas, he said.

“Broadband is to communications today what electricity and telephone service were 100 years ago,” Boucher said. And while he acknowledged the impact of $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband was a subject for debate, Boucher reiterated his view that broadband is “clearly deserving…of universal service fund support.”

But Ranking Member Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said the stimulus plans made expansion of the fund irrelevant. Instead of expanding the USF, Stearns suggested examining the successes and failures of the stimulus program while it is implemented.

Congress should focus efforts on reducing waste and fraud in current USF programs and adding a cap prevent more “uncontrolled growth” of the fund, Stearns said.

“Throwing money at this crumbling program makes no sense,” he said. Instead of more subsides, Stearns suggested using “market-based, technology-neutral systems” to encourage broadband deployment.

Industry leaders were in agreement on Boucher’s plan for expanding the USF to include broadband service. “The core principle of competitive telecommunications for every American remains an important and worthy goal,” said U.S. Cellular Chairman LeRoy Carlson. “[T]he proper role of [the USF] must be to ensure that [rural] areas have modern, high quality telecommunications infrastructure” that is both feature and price comparable with their urban and suburban counterparts, he said.”

Broadband and mobile wireless services are two ‘must-have’ functionalities consumers expect and demand for home and business, Carlson declared,” whether they live in urban or rural areas. “I believe a reformed program can effectively…address those problems, and if tailored correctly, can even be complimented by leveraging the [broadband stimulus funds],” he said.

“A central goal of this program must be to provide rural citizens with access to high quality mobile voice and broadband services, everywhere that people live, work and travel,” said Carlson.

Verizon executive vice president Tom Tauke told the subcommittee he believes that consumers, industry and policymakers agree that modern and affordable communications services are “a prerequisite for economic growth, and an essential platform to address major social challenges.”

But the high-cost fund “remains focused on yesteryear’s technology,” Tauke said. “Attempts to fit new technologies into a telecom framework.” This process has not allowed the fund to meet its “fundamental objective: providing universal service.”

Qwest Communications Executive Vice President Robert Davis agreed for the need to reform the fund to allow for new technologies. “The grants for broadband deployment that will be provided by the [stimulus program] are a start,” he said, “but no one believes that this money will result in ubiquitous deployment of [broadband] to currently underserved areas.” There remains a crucial role for universal service funding,” David declared.

Adopting broadband as part of universal service would also resolve questions on how to stop what some lawmakers described as “runaway” increases in USF fees. AT&T vice president Joel Lubin suggested that moving from charging consumers based on a portion of their bill to a per-number charge.

While Lubin acknowledged revenues paid into the fund from telephone network access charges might temporarily decrease under such a plan, he predicted that the drop would be inevitable as more Americans move to voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services.

The increasing number of phone numbers used by consumers in next-generation technologies such as mobile phones, VoIP lines, and multi-line business systems would more than make up for the temporary drop, Lubin said.

“Broadband is a disruptive technology that redefines the game,” Lubin said. “Local calling areas are now the whole world.” A broadband based USF program would eliminate access charges while providing “more capability, without the complexity of old narrowband pipes”

Free Press research director Derek Turner noted both “critics and defenders of the high-cost fund all agree that broadband is the essential communications infrastructure of the 21st Century.” When USF was created in 1996, “internet access was an application that used telephony as an infrastructure,” he said.

By contrast, Turner said in today’s world, “telephony is one of the many applications that are supported by broadband infrastructure.” And while the FCC can take steps to modernize the USF regulatory structure, Turner emphasized that “meaningful and lasting reform” can come only from congressional action. “Achieving this goal…will require the complete upending of the status quo and direct confrontation of difficult and politically challenging choices,” he said.

When Boucher asked the panel if the law should explicitly allow USF to cover broadband, there was no disagreement that the 1996 Telecommunications Act should be changed to allow USF funding to explicitly cover broadband services.

But there was some disagreement over whether a “USF 2.0,” as one witness put it, should be limited to wireline services only. While Davis said a program should be “technology neutral” once speed and price targets had been determined, Carlson said that both were equally important – and that wireline and wireless could be subjected to different speed requirements.

And while Turner acknowledged wireless could have a role in reducing costs, he wasn’t convinced. “I’m not sure if checking Facebook while driving at 70 miles per hour is [needed in USF programs]. But Tauke pointed out that fixed and mobile wireless have different use cases and potentials. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., agreed, calling the two technologies “a different ballgame.”

The Federal Communications Commission is currently accepting comments on a proposal to expand the USF-funded Life Line and Link Up programs to include broadband services. In response to a question from Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., Tauke said he didn’t support the proposal in its current form.

Tauke later said in an interview that Verizon believes it is important for all Americans to have access to broadband and that USF should be included, but he could not offer specific alternatives to the Life Line/Link Up proposal except to suggest the program be technology-neutral.

And while AT&T’s Lubin was wary of subsidizing access devices, he agreed that the choice of wired or wireline service, even under Life Line/Link Up, should be “in the mind of the consumer.”

The Life Line/Link Up proposal was endorsed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners at its winter 2009 meeting last month.

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