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FCC Aims to Increase Awareness of Lifeline, Link Up Programs

in Broadband's Impact/FCC/Tribal Broadband/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2010 – This week is the second annual “National Lifeline and Link Up Telephone Discount Awareness Week” brought to you by the Federal Communications Commission, National Association of Regulatory Commissioners and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

The week kicked off with a congressional briefing, where members of the telecom community outlined for lawmakers efforts being made to promote awareness of the two telephone assistance programs.

Various state and local agencies throughout the country are participating in the awareness week with outreach activities and events.  The Lifeline and Link Up programs are designed to help ensure that all Americans can get basic telephone service by providing discounts to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford service.  Statistics show that of the 25.7 million eligible, 8.2 million households participate, or roughly a 32 percent national participation rate for 2009, according to the FCC.

Lifeline involves discounts on monthly charges for a primary residential telephone line, which might be wireless service.  Link Up involves a discount on the cost of initiating the primary telephone service for a residence, including the activation of a wireless phone that serves as the primary residential telephone. The discounts are available throughout the country, including an enhanced discount on tribal lands.  In general, consumers at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or who participate in one or more of a number of other assistance programs, are eligible for Lifeline and Link Up.

More information about the programs and how to apply is available at www.lifeline.gov or http://www.usac.org/li/low-income/apply-for-support.aspx.

FCC Readies Plan to Bring Affordable Broadband to 100 Million Homes, Dubs Plan ‘Connecting America’

in Broadband Stimulus/FCC/National Broadband Plan/Universal Service/Wireless by

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2010 – The Federal Communications Commission will present its congressionally mandated plan to bring high-speed internet access throughout the United States to lawmakers tomorrow, outlining six long-term goals and detailing its views on better ways to encourage broadband competition, free up available spectrum and modernize health care, among other things.

The agency hopes that its 360-page document will help bring affordable broadband to at least 100 million U.S. homes, which would enjoy download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and uploads speeds of at least 50 mbps.

It also strives to make the United States a leader in mobile innovation “with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation,” according to the “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan” document.

Under the plan, every American community would have access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service at institutions like schools and hospitals. Additionally, first responders would be able to access a national, wireless public safety network if the plan’s recommendations were implemented.

It also pushes for each American to be able to use broadband to track and manage their energy consumption.

FCC officials reiterated in a Monday press briefing for reporters that the plan’s goals are a directional compass that will constantly be evaluated.

The officials said they expect that within the next few years most people will access broadband services via mobile devices, and their plan reflects that.

The plan calls for making 500 megahertz of spectrum newly available for broadband within 10 years, of which 300 megahertz should be made available for mobile use within five years. In some cases spectrum could be reallocated or the FCC could change technical rules that would free it up, FCC officials said Monday.

The vast majority of the plan does not require government funding, but its ideas “seek to drive improvements in government efficiency, streamline processes and encourage private activity to promote consumer welfare and national priorities,” the plan reads.

The funds that are requested relate to public safety, deployment to unserved areas and broadband adoption efforts.

The plan argues that if the spectrum auction recommendations are implemented, the plan is likely to offset the potential costs.

The plan also calls for shifting up to $15.5 billion over the next decade from the existing Universal Service Fund to support broadband, and says that if Congress wants to accelerate broadband deployment to unserved areas, “it could make available public funds of a few billion dollars per year over two to three years.”

Officials declined to put a price tag on how much an implemented plan might cost.

The agency also seeks to expand the Lifeline and Link-up programs for bringing telephone service to low-income Americans to include broadband, and to launch a Digital Literacy Corps to organize and train youth and adults to teach digital literacy skills.

Officials also said the don’t see the plan as a major call for reform of telecommunications law, but lawmakers could consider a privacy act to encourage consumers that their privacy when using broadband would be protected.

The plan also reaches out to many other agencies and departments. For example, it recommends that Congress and the secretary of Health and Human Services consider developing a strategy that documents the proven value of electronic care, or e-care, technologies.

An executive summary of the plan is available on the FCC’s web site, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-296858A1.pdf

Rockefeller, Hutchison Would Expand Lifeline Program to Broadband

in Broadband's Impact/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2009 – The Broadband Opportunity and Affordability Act, which would direct the Federal Communications Commission to expand the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program to support broadband service, as well as explore programs to subsidize computer ownership for low-income Americans, was introduced in the Senate late Friday with bipartisan support from members of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The bill would direct the Federal Communications Commission to implement a two year pilot program under which the Universl Service Fund Life Line program would be expanded to pay for broadband services to low-income Americans. The pilot program would be required to be technology neutral and could also require states to pay matching funds in order to participate.

The bill, which is sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also directs the FCC to study whether the USF-funded Link Up program could reduce the cost of broadband by subsidizing computer ownership.

The Commission would conduct the study through a notice of inqury to determine the types of equipment to be supported by such a program, the amount of funding available, and eligibility requirements.

The FCC’s data on the Life Line pilot and the Link Up study would be due to be reported back to Congress, with the Life Line report study due within 18 months of the pilot’s implementation.

“Today, millions of low-income American families are left at a disadvantage because they cannot afford broadband Internet access or the necessary supporting computer equipment,” said Chairman Rockefeller.

“As more aspects of 21st century life become dependent upon Internet access, it is crucial we help to provide all families with the high-tech resources they need to succeed in the workplace and in school – and for the United States to continue to be a competitive, global economic leader.”

The BOAA, and similar legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., come almost two years since former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin suggested a Life Line pilot, and 10 months since the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners endorsed the resolution at its February, 2009 meeting.

Nevertheless, NARUC President David Coen of Vermont said NARUC supports the Rockefeller-Hutchison bill:

We commend Sen. Rockefeller for introducing this bill and we look forward to working with the Senator, his staff, and other members of his committee on this important issue,” Coen said in a statement. “Expanding the Lifeline programs to include broadband will help ensure that all Americans have access to affordable and reliable advanced telecommunications services. Although we are still reviewing the legislation, it is clearly a step in the right direction.”

USF Reforms Should Include Broadband, NCTA Tells FCC

in Broadband's Impact/FCC/National Broadband Plan by

WASHINGTON, November 6, 2009 – The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has asked the Federal Communications Commission to redirect up to $2 billion in “wasteful” spending from Universal Service programs towards broadband. The association did so in a filing submitted to the Commission on Thursday.

With telephone subscriber contributions to the program now exceeding 12 percent of total usage fees — and projected to pass 14 percent next year, it is “critically important” for the FCC to update the program, NCTA said in a press release.

“The USF program operates as if nothing has changed since 1996,” the association said in its filing. Americans continuous switch away from traditional copper-based phone service negates the need to subsidize it, and funds should be redirected towards the broadband infrastructure carrying Voice over IP traffic which Americans are increasingly choosing. “[A]s millions of Americans take service from facilities-based wireline competitors, the Commission continues to provide billions of dollars of support for [traditional] service.”

The NCTA suggests the FCC use a two-step process to reassess the level of USF support needed by measuring the availability of cable-based telephone service — and reducing USF support where it can be shown that competitive service is available from those providers. Subsidies should only be given in the face of a compelling, demonstrated need that “specific costs” associated with serving areas cannot be recovered from subscription fees alone, the filing suggests.

“The burden should be on the ILEC to demonstrate that the total cost of serving areas where it is the sole provider is greater than the total revenues it can potentially generate from services sold to customers,” the NCTA petition said.

A step further would be to expand USF subsidies to cover broadband services — an idea NCTA said “could address a major concern of policymakers.” While NCTA admitted expanding USF to cover all broadband services, a limited and measured program could help provide all Americans with access to broadband capabilities.

The FCC currently has proposals pending before it that would expand the USF “Life Line” and “Link Up” programs to include broadband service. The pilot proposals were endorsed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners at its Winter 2009 meeting in Chicago, from November 16 – 18.

No New Universal Service Fund Rate Says NASUCA

in FCC/National Broadband Plan/Universal Service by

By Ryan Womack, Reporter-Researcher, BroadbandCensus.com

WASHINGTON, June 10, 2009  -  The proposed increase in the consumer contributions to the the Universal Service Fund came under fire Tuesday from the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

“With high unemployment levels, foreclosures across the nation and everyone’s household budgets being stretched thin, we call on the FCC to reduce the proposed hike in the Universal Service Fund’s contribution level,” NASUCA President David Springe, said in a statement.  The proposed increase would bring the USF contribution to 12.9 percent of a users bill, compared with the previous high of 11.4 percent.

Every telephone user in the country pays into the USF whether they know it or not. Not a tax, the monies are deposited in a trust fund used to maintain and subsidize rural telephone service to places where it would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

The USF is controlled by the Universal Service Administrative Company, and overseen by a joint board consisting of FCC and state-level commissioners.

The fund has four main goals: ensure reasonable rates for all consumers, assist low-income families in telecommunications, enable rural health care companies telecommunication capabilities, and assist eligible schools and libraries in providing low-cost internet access.

A pilot proposal floated last year by then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin would expand two USF programs to provide broadband internet access to selected homes, using a $30 million trial system based on the current Life Line and Link Up programs. The proposal was endorsed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners at its Winter meeting earlier this year.

With over $7 billion in the USF trust fund according to some estimates, NASUCA says the joint board can easily expend these available funds rather than increase carrier contributions.

While acknolwedging USF’s continued usefulness, Springe suggested the present “[struggle] with a national recession” means consumers needs should weigh heavier on the joint board’s recommendations.  “The goals of the universal service fund are extremely important, but to demand that consumers pay the highest contribution level in history is to hurt the very customers we are trying to help.”

State and Local Regulators Say 'Relevance' Needed For Successful Broadband Adoption

in Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2009 – Making broadband applications more relevant in underserved and unserved communities could be a better use of stimulus funds than building infrastructure, a group of state and local regulatory officials Friday at a cable industry show here.

The lack of relevance to users is definitely the “largest barrier to broadband adoption,” said John Horrigan, associate research director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Dealing with the issue properly will require infrastructure programs to be combined with “training and support” initiatives to improve overall digital literacy, said Horrigan.

In addition to focusing on rural areas, California Public Utility Commissioner Rachelle Chong said that “urban disadvantaged” communities is an area in which her state is actively involved through the California Emerging Technology Fund. The fund paid for computer refurbishing programs and technology training in low-income communities.

But California has bigger plans, she said, including a “digital literacy” policy for the state’s entire education system.

One “big think” project that could come next year is the distribution of laptop computers to all students in the lowest performing middle schools, along with appropriate technology training for teachers, students, and their parents. Chong later said California could possibly submit “dozens” of broadband-adoption applications to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s grants program.

Tampa mayor John Marks said policies to foster adoption could come on a local level, but said he was concerned about potential conflicts with state and national policymakers. A national broadband strategy would help drive decision making, he said. “We need to have that kind of comprehensive policy… to tell us which way we want to go.”

Washington, D.C., Public Services Commission Chairman Betty Ann Kane said that some urban areas could be deemed unserved.

While acknowledging that D.C. has its infrastructure built up, Kane called the idea that broadband is available in all urban areas a “myth.” But “people do not come” in many places where it is available because of cost and lack of options compared to other services with higher adoption rates. “There is clearly an affordability issue,” she said.

Kane said D.C is considering many solutions, including opening up the city’s municipal Wi-Fi network as well as the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed Universal Service pilot project. The project would expand the Life Line and Link Up programs to include broadband.

But simply expanding broadband to libraries and community technology centers runs the risk of creating a new digital divide, she said. And as more government services migrate online, Kane warned that divide would only expand.

Programs for encouraging adoption must stay locally-focused to be successful, said Mary Beth Henry, Deputy Director at the Portland, Ore., Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management. In addition to thinking locally, success requires “compelling content that would drive people to want to use the Internet,” she said.

Marks questioned the efficacy of focusing on computers as the primary on-ramp to the Internet. “Some people will never have a laptop in their home,” he said, “but they will have a big screen TV.” And broadband applications don’t require a laptop, he said. Under a successful national policy, “everybody should be able to benefit,” he said.

Public-private partnerships should play a major role in deployment and adoption programs, said Virginia State Delegate Joe May. But Kane warned that many previous partnerships are often one-time, “charity” programs. That practice must stop and give way to sustainable initiatives, she said.

And telecommunications companies must stop their opposition to municipal networks, she said. While municipal Wi-Fi can’t match the speeds of broadband offered by some land-based carriers, Wi-Fi could allow people to gain access to broadband and become “future customers” for broadband providers, she said.

Partnerships are “essential,” but should not preclude local government action if the private sector cannot or will not provide adequate services, said Marks.

But May pointed out that Virginia had ended up in “standoff” with incumbent carriers, who tried to ban municipal broadband.

The conflict resulted in public-private partnerships emerging as a “compromise” solution, he said. While municipalities should go forward in the absence of private sector action, May said it was important to make sure private business always get the “first crack” at broadband opportunities.

Chong pointed out that the “delicate balance” struck in the 1996 Telecommunications Act favored of competition. Municipalities may attempt their own solutions after a market failure, Chong said, but stressed that they should not be allowed to go first.

State Regulators Could Ask FCC to Fund Broadband for Low Income Households

in Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, February 14, 2009 – State utility commissioners are considering a resolution to “strongly encourage” Federal Communications Commission implementation of a pilot program to make broadband internet access service eligible for subsidies drawn from the Universal Service Fund.

The measure is entitled “Resolution on Lifeline and Link-Up Program Support for Broadband Internet Access Services and Devices.” Sponsored by District of Columbia Public Service Commissioner Betty Ann Kane, it was introduced at the winter meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners here on Friday afternoon.

The Lifeline Assistance program has provided discounted rates on local phone service to low income consumers since 1985. The Link-Up America program began in 1987, and covers the cost of initial connection charges for phone service.

Both programs are administered jointly by federal and state regulators and funded by assessments on all telecommunications services, as part of the Universal Service Fund.

The USF is designed to provide universal telephone service. With the exception of the eRate, which funds internet connections to schools and libraries, FCC rules limit USF subsidies to voice communications.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to make “advanced telecommunications and information services” available to all at “just, reasonable and affordable rates.”

In November 2007, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, an FCC-NARUC body which administers the funds, recommended that the FCC “revise the current definition of supported services to include broadband Internet service.”

The FCC agreed with the Joint Board’s recommendations in November 2008, and issued a notice seeking comments on two competing proposals. Both proposals would establish a three-year, $300 million “Broadband Lifeline/Link Up Pilot Program” to support broadband internet access for households already eligible for subsidized telephone service.

If adopted, the resolution would publicly assert NARUC’s belief that affordable broadband Internet service is “critical to the provision of public education, public health, public safety and other services.” It asks the FCC to modify its proposed pilot program to give each state’s regulatory body the authority to distribute funding for the program to any broadband provider it deems eligible.

Not all subcommittee members were convinced that even a temporary pilot program is necessary. During Saturday afternoon discussions, some members suggested the broadband portion of the economic stimulus bill passed late Friday night might render the program redundant.

But the stimulus bill, which directs $7.2 billion to building broadband networks in unserved and underserved regions, doesn’t address the high cost of broadband service. High prices were cited in a 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project as one key greatest reason why consumers didn’t subscribe to broadband.

The NARUC telecommunications staff subcommittee will finalize its version of the resolution Sunday, after which the full committee will begin consideration of the measure. If approved, it will be submitted to the NARUC board of directors for a final vote. The NARUC winter meeting runs through Wednesday, February 18.

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