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National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioner

NARUC Panel Supports USF Reform

in FCC/Mobile Broadband/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON February 15, 2011 – On Monday, the Telecommunications Subcommittee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners gathered a diverse group of experts to discuss the Proposed Rulemaking on Universal Service Fund Reform the Federal Communications Commission recently issued.

The panel brought together a wide range of experts, including Joel Lubin from AT&T, James Cawley from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and Parul Desai from Consumers Union. The group represented a range of opinions but they all agreed that the NPRM was an essential update to the Universal Service Fund.

“It was good to see that broadband was finally included in universal service and the goal of 4Mbps down  is promising,” said Desai.

Cawley was also supportive of the speed goal calling it “reasonable and measured”.

Mike Balhoff, from the consulting firm Balhoff & Williams, described how the group felt about the NPRM, saying, “the gun is to our heads and now necessary reform will have to occur.”

Eric Einhorn from rural broadband provider Windstream, indicated that his firm was particularly pleased that the FCC choose to be technologically neutral in their plan to modify high cost support to a single entity. Einhorn hoped this would allow for true competition between wireline and wireless.

“Under the new proposal, High Cost support will only be given after the entity reaches preset service goals,” said Billy Jack Gregg the former Director of the Consumer Advocate Division of the West Virginia Public Service Commission. “This is going to make sure that [the Universal Service Administrative Company] won’t have to continuously monitor recipients to ensure that service goals are being met”

Steven Morris from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association highlighted the fact that the USF now has a set budget, and the FCC must figure out how to find solutions under this budget.

Gregg echoed this statement, saying, “the USF is finally like other government programs with a set budget”.

The only problem that the group had with the NPRM is that it failed to address contribution reform. Balhoff, Cawley and Gregg each underscored that while contribution reform was not included in the NPRM it is likely that the issue will be addressed soon. Lubin predicted that it would happen in the late spring.

NARUC Applauds FCC Decision on Broadband Data Collection

in Broadband Data/FCC/States by

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2010 – The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners is applauding a decision that no Federal Communications Commission ruling preempts states from collecting broadband data.

The FCC made that decision yesterday in response to a NARUC petition.

“With this clarification that states are not preempted from collecting broadband data, agencies like ours can continue their work of determining where broadband is and, just as important, where it isn’t, said association President David Coen of Vermont and NARUC Telecommunications Committee Chairman Ray Baum of Oregon in a statement. “States have the local knowledge and geographic expertise to collect and use broadband data in an efficient manner…This declaration lets us move forward.”

State Telecom Regulators Urge ‘Sunshine Law’ Reform

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact/FCC/States/Transparency by

WASHINGTON, April 15, 2010 — Federal laws designed to guarantee public access to certain data should be revised to allow members of the Federal Communications Commission to meet more often and work together more efficiently, a group of state telecommunications regulators told members of a House committee in a Wednesday letter.

The letter was addressed to the chairmen and ranking members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

The state commissioners, including former National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners President Larry Landis of Indiana and Roy Baum of Oregon, are members of the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service.

The board also has seats for two FCC commissioners. But the “sunshine rules” prevent a third FCC commissioner from sitting in on a joint board meeting. For more than two members of the FCC to meet — even informally – there must be a series of public notices and a posted agenda a certain number of days before the meeting.

This structure was put in place to foster transparency and good government, but critics charge it has hampered the commission’s ability to conduct business and solve problems by limiting the occurrence of spontaneous discussions among commissioners. The commissioners say the rules have hampered the ability of the commission to act quickly when dealing with emerging problems.

The letter encourages the House members to approve the Federal Communications Commission Collaboration Act, H.R. 4167. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who announced this month he will not run for re-election. The bill corrects “systemic problems” with the sunshine laws, the state commissioners say, and would resolve “significant inefficiencies and delay in the FCC administrative process.”

FCC Chief Raises Curtain on Bits of Broadband Plan

in Broadband Stimulus/Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact/FCC/National Broadband Plan/Smart Grid/Wireless by

Washington, February 16, 2010 – Federal Communications Commission chief Julius Genachowski previewed the agency’s upcoming plan to outfit the nation with broadband access in a speech at a winter committee meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Genachowski called the expansion of broadband to all Americans the greatest infrastructure project of this generation.

He said that while some members of the broadband community compare the big broadband rollout to the expansion of the intrastate highway system, it’s really more like the expansion of electricity in that broadband is a general-purpose technology. It enables its users to benefit not so much from its direct use, but for its ability to enhance indirectly various aspects of their lives.

Access to broadband is not only access to the internet, but also access to low cost communications, an endless stream of knowledge, the ability to access educational opportunities, access to jobs and creating a more efficient energy grid, he said.

Genachowski compared the aim of the broadband plan to the 1934 Communications Act creating the FCC and regulating and expanding telephone service.

He touted the benefits of broadband, saying a college student with broadband is twice as productive as one without access.

He also highlighted a Veterans Administration telehealth pilot program that has reduced hospital admission by 19 percent.

Although he praised broadband’s merits, he bemoaned its current state: “Despite significant private investment we still don’t have enough broadband.”

The lack of availability is the largest barrier currently for adoption. Twenty-six percent of rural businesses have no access to cable while 14 million have no access to any form of broadband.

Genachowski praised the recent announcement by Google to conduct trials providing ultra high-speed access to some communities across America, and he called for additional private competition to spur competition.

In his preview of the upcoming national broadband plan, Genachowski cited a program that has a goal of providing 100 million Americans with 100 megabit access. ” Our plan will set goals for the U.S. to have the world’s largest market of very high-speed broadband users. A “100 Squared” initiative — 100 million households at 100 megabits per second — to unleash American ingenuity and ensure that businesses, large and small, are created here, move here, and stay here.

And we should stretch beyond 100 megabits. The U.S. should lead the world in ultra-high-speed broadband testbeds as fast, or faster, than anywhere in the world. In the global race to the top, this will help ensure that America has the infrastructure to host the boldest innovations that can be imagined.”

He also said the Universal Service Fund, which is designed to bring communications services to the neediest parts of the country, should include broadband.

Additionally, he said the E-Rate, which provides broadband access to millions of schools, needs improvements to allow for increased usability.

In regards to universal service goals, Genachowski said the rate of adoption should be set at above 90 percent with a speed of greater than 2 megabits per second, which is faster than most other nations provide.

The plan’s goal should be not only to improve access and adoption but to ensure competitiveness with the rest of the world. Most of Asia and large parts of Europe already have national broadband plans and have begun to implement improvements in access and speed.

One of the key parts of the upcoming plan is an increase in access to spectrum because mobile access is an area which can provide great access for low cost for many Americans, but additional spectrum is necessary to realize its goals, according to Genachowski.

He also discussed modernizing rural telehealth; lowering the cost of expanding wired and wireless networks, and creating an interoperable public safety network.

NARUC Wants FCC to Require That Carriers Also Provide Data to States

in Broadband Data/States by

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2009 – State utility commissioners want the Federal Communications Commission to put broadband carriers on notice that the agency’s own broadband data collection does not relieve operators of the obligation to comply with state requests.

In papers filed with the FCC on Friday, The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners asked the commission to issue a declaratory ruling which would clarify that in collecting data from broadband carriers, the commission is not asserting any preemption over state-level mapping efforts.

NARUC endorsed such a ruling at its July 2009 meeting, during which it passed a resolution asking the FCC to provide states with the Form 477 data in compliance with the 2008 Broadband Data Improvement Act.

The resolution further requests the commission to clarify that it has not asserted “any general preemption of any State actions,” specifically those having to do with broadband mapping.

“Congress has been crystal clear…that it wants to promote the deployment and adoption of advanced services,” NARUC said in its petition “and that it wants States to play a key role in those efforts.”

NARUC passed the resolution in response to carriers resistance to state-level broadband mapping efforts, said District of Columbia Public Services Commission chairman Betty Ann Kane. Federal law actually requires states to conduct broadband mapping, Kane said.

But efforts by states to collect data in a more granular manner than the FCC have been resisted by broadband service providers. Carriers are justifying withholding of data by claiming the FCC process preempts any single state program, Kane said. “The carriers have not been forthcoming in making the information the states need available,” Kane explained in an interview. “Just because [the FCC] is asking for data doesn’t mean the states can’t.”

Kane said she is “very hopeful” the commission will act on NARUC’s petition and issue a declaratory ruling. When contacted for this story, FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard said she had no comment on the matter.

About BroadbandCensus.com

BroadbandCensus.com was launched in January 2008, and uses “crowdsourcing” to collect the Broadband SPARC: Speeds, Prices, Availability, Reliability and Competition. The news on BroadbandCensus.com is produced by Broadband Census News LLC, a subsidiary of Broadband Census LLC that was created in July 2009.

A recent split of operations helps to clarify the mission of BroadbandCensus.com. Broadband Census Data LLC offers commercial broadband verification services to cities, states, carriers and broadband users. Created in July 2009, Broadband Census Data LLC produced a joint application in the NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program with Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program. In August 2009, BroadbandCensus.com released a beta map of Columbia, South Carolina, in partnership with Benedict-Allen Community Development Corporation.

Broadband Census News LLC offers daily and weekly reporting, as well as the Broadband Breakfast Club. The Broadband Breakfast Club has been inviting top experts and policy-makers to share breakfast and perspectives on broadband technology and internet policy since October 2008. Both Broadband Census News LLC and Broadband Census Data LLC are subsidiaries of Broadband Census LLC, and are organized in the Commonwealth of Virginia. About BroadbandCensus.com.

NARUC Tells Feds: To Get BTOP Back on Track, Let States Lead

in Broadband Stimulus/NTIA/States by

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2009 – The Broadband Technology Opportunity Program can be put back on a faster schedule if state governments are used as a main points of contact for  grant applicants, National Association of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners president Fred Butler of New Jersey and Communications Committee chairman Roy Baum of Oregon said Friday.

In a strongly-worded letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and a host of other NTIA and RUS officials, including RUS Administrator-Designate and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein (D) and NTIA Administrator-Designate Larry Stricking.

The letter strongly reiterated NARUC’s previously stated position, under which states would play a leading role in the screening process for grant appllicants.

The NARUC letter comes in response to the Obama administration’s announcement last week of timelines for grant distribution that were later than expected. NARUC’s approach will work faster, the group said: “Proceeding [with states in the lead] is likely to better position [NTIA and RUS] to release the funds months before the end of the year.”

NARUC reccomended each state that “opt-in” to the BTOP program recieve at least of $36 million in grants, with possible supplemental funding of approximately $15 million. But states would have to obey a“use or lose” system, by which it would risk losing funds without sufficient numbers of applicants, or if the state fails to properly screen applicants. Any funds reclaimed from non-compliant states could be rolled into an additional Notice of Funds Availability.

The $350 million available for broadband mapping should be used to fund programs which obtain more granular data than currently available under federal reporting requirements, the letter suggested.  NTIA’s role would be to provide a model template for state mapping reports that “assures states can provide and audit detailed data,” and that companies be required to provide detailed data to any public agency requesting it.

There is “no perfect process” for evaluation of grants, the letter admits. But compared to “Washington, DC consultants,” NARUC’s letter strongly contents that states have “intimate knowledge of their communications, economic enviroment, geography, and demographics” that would allow grant funds to be targeted where they are most needed to stimulate the economy.

Smart Grid Benefits May Require Strings, Industry Reps Say

in Smart Grid/States by

SAN MATEO, Calif., May 12th, 2009 – While implementing a smart electrical grid could save consumers money and allow utilities to better serve their customers, interoperability among utilities and between states requires a careful approach, industry representatives said Tuesday at a round table session of the Tech Policy Summit.

Utilities can benefit from upgrading to a smart grid because such systems transmit more detailed usage than traditional meters, said Trilliant chief solutions Officer Eric Miller. In particular, service disruptions can be minimized if crews can automatically be notified when outages occur — and where, he said.

The same technology can let customers better track their own usage patterns, said ZigBee Alliance Vice Chairman Adrian Tuck.  Detailed information can help users curtail their use and save energy during peak demand periods, when prices are highest, he said. Informed consumers could possibly, on average, save 15 percent on their monthly electricity bill, Tuck suggested.

Appliances — not meters — hold even more promise for consumer savings, said Bryan Seal, chief smart grid strategy officer at SmartSynch. Household appliances equipped to run on the smart grid are a key element, said eMeter Corporation chief strategy officer Chris King. But for consumers to make use of new energy-saving  features, they must be designed to be “set it and forget it,” King said.

Well-designed smart grid compatible appliances could react automatically to reduce usage and save consumers money, Tuck said.   As an example, he suggested  a dryer could be programmed to lower its temperature  during peak demand hours, resulting in increased savings.

Adoption of plug-in hybrid vehicles — a major plank in President Obama’s energy independence strategy — could be hastened by a smart grid system, King said. A properly configured grid could allow the vehicles, which he compared to a small house in terms of power needs, to draw power from renewable sources, if available, to handle the extra demand without forcing prices up, he said.

But California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong, who moderated the discussion, noted using wind and solar means developing storage solutions for times when “the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.”  The system would have to recognize such conditions to be able to tap those reserves, she said.

Interoperability between utilities will be a major factor in accelerating adoption, the panelists agreed. The National Institute for Standards and Technology has been charged with developing protocols to allow utilities to talk to each other in forming a national smart grid. Chong noted that there is no federal authority to compel compliance with any standard, but state public utility commissions could take the issue head on, as California has done.

Chong, who represents California on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Smart Grid Task Force suggested the key to getting states to adopt  federal smart grid guidelines will be money.

The solution, Chong said, may resemble other federal initatives to compel state guidance with a standard Congress would ordinarily have no authority to promulgate. Much like the strings attached to federal highway funding, Chong suggested states wanting to upgrade their grids with federal dollars will have to adopt the federal interoperability standards.

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

in Universal Service by

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.

Universal Service Fund Expansion Pilot Approved by State Commissioners

in Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, February 19, 2009 – State utility commissioners approved a resolution endorsing a Federal Communications Commission proposal to expand Lifeline and Link Up telephone subsidization programs to offer broadband service for low income consumers.

Originally championed by former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, the proposal will allow telecommunications companies, even those that do not currently receive USF dollars, to receive Universal Service Fund monies to help low income families connect to the Internet. Companies that do not currently receive USF funding for voice service would have to pay into the fund in order to be eligible.

The resolution was approved by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners telecommunications committee on Tuesday at its winter meeting here in Washington, and later adopted by the organization’s board of directors. NARUC represents state regulatory boards from all 50 states.

With Stimulus Fight Complete, Advocates Shift Focus to Universal Service

in Broadband Stimulus/Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, February 16, 2009 – With $7.2 billion in fiscal stimulus grants and loans marked to expand broadband infrastructure, industry groups, consumer advocates and some state regulators are supporting a proposal to fund broadband for low income households by tapping into the Universal Service Fund.

Thus far, the USF established by the Federal Communications Commission principally funds universal telephone service (and internet connections for schools and libraries), although there are numerous concerted efforts to extend USF monies to broadband.

The USF is funded by assessments on voice telephone service and administered by a Federal-State board of regulatory commissioners.

Last November, the FCC sought comment on a proposal supported by then-Chairman Kevin Martin for a pilot program that would subsidize broadband internet to low-income households.

Martin’s proposal would make broadband Internet providers meet eligibility criteria for the USF’s Lifeline and Link Up funds. The programs are used to offset the cost of both monthly telephone service and connection charges for households that fall under a certain income threshold.

The Martin plan was put forward after TracFone, a reseller of prepaid wireless service, became the first wireless company eligible to receive Lifeline subsidies. Rick Brecker, a Greenberg Traurig attorney who represents TracFone before the FCC, told the audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference here that the company’s success at providing subsidized voice service made it natural to look at doing something similar with wireless broadband.

Several consumer groups filed comments in support of TracFone’s petition. And NARUC’s telecommunications committee is considering a resolution sponsored by D.C. Public Service Commissioner Betty Ann Kane supporting a modified version of the two year, $30 million program suggested by Martin.

Free Press research director Derek Turner said his organization supports both the FCC pilot and the NARUC resolution, but called the both proposed $300 million cost of the pilot and 40 percent target adoption rate “a fantasy.” Turner suggested the true cost of a program on the scale Martin envisioned would require spending $1 billion over two years.

But a more modest proposal for using the $300 million could provide service for 812,000 homes that don’t currently subscribe to broadband services, Turner said. Because “broadband is no longer a luxury,” Turner said Free Press believes any increase in the use of broadband – “a technology that is vital for any individual to effectively participate in today’s world” – is worth pursuing,

Computer and Communications Industry Association Vice President Cathy Sloan called increased broadband service — whether via digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, or wireless, would be “a component of a more enlightened public policy.” But any FCC program should be “harmonized” with the grants funded under the stimulus package.

Sloan cautioned the state commissioners at the NARUC meeting that broadband providers need not currently be eligible to receive funds under USF programs. And start-up companies that use new technologies should not have to pay into the fund to receive funds, she said. “New and more efficient business models should not be walled off [from the program].”

But Sloan warned against adopting too broad a definition of “Internet access devices” — a category that could conceivably include smart phones. “We don’t need to be subsidizing iPhones and Blackberries,” she said.

The current FCC definitions for Lifeline service are obsolete, said AT&T regulatory counsel Beth Fujimoto. “Existing programs are very POTS-centric,” she said, using industry slang for Plain Old Telephone Service.

Regulators shouldn’t make broadband service follow rules designed for the voice era, Fujimoto said, calling for an FCC rulemaking to establish a new “Lifeline service provider” category.

Asking if any in the audience feared a return to rotary phones in the absence of rules mandating touch tones, Fujimoto called for a broad overhaul of the Lifeline program. “We really need to take a fresh look at what services should be offered.”

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