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

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 Technology, Communications, Technology and the Internet.

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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.

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

FCC

Federal Communications Commission Implements Rules for Affordable Connectivity Program

The agency implemented new rules on the Affordable Connectivity Program, which makes a new subsidy permanent.

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Photo of Jessica Rosenworcel by Rob Kunzig of Morning Consult

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules Friday for its Affordable Connectivity Program that changes and, in some cases narrows, the eligibility requirements for the subsidy to allow for more households to be connected.

An extension of the former Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which offered discounts to broadband service providers to subsidize connectivity and devices, the new program will make it easier for providers to get in the program by automatically making eligible providers in good standing.

Additionally, the FCC maintains that the monthly discount on broadband service is limited to one internet discount per household rather than allowing the benefit for separate members of a household. “Adopting a one-per-household limitation best ensures that Program funding is available to the largest possible number of eligible households,” the agency said in its report.

To accommodate the volume of eligible households enrolling in the ACP, the FCC allowed providers until March 22 – 60 days after its Friday order is published in the Federal Register– to make necessary changes to ensure that the ACP can be applied to providers’ currently sold plans.

“So much of our day to day—work, education, healthcare and more—has migrated online. As a result, it’s more apparent than ever before that broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have, for everyone, everywhere,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “But there are far too many households across the country that are wrestling with how to pay for gas and groceries and also keep up with the broadband bill. This program, like its predecessor, can make a meaningful difference.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act transformed the EBB to the longer-term Affordable Connectivity Program by allocating an additional $14.2 billion to it.

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Universal Service

Advocates Call for Universal Service Fund to Include Broadband Revenues

Letter cites Carol Mattey report, which recommends broadening the base.

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Carol Mattey of Mattey Consulting LLC

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – A broad swath of organizations on Monday is calling for policymakers in Washington to reform and stabilize the Universal Service Fund by broadening its funding base to include broadband revenues.

The Universal Service Fund, which supplies the nation’s low-income and rural and remote communities with basic telecommunications services, currently relies on voice service revenues, which has been a dwindling for years. Debate has emerged about how the fund can be stabilized, with some asking for the money to come from a congressional budget item and others asking for it to come from broadband revenues.

The latter is being recommended by over 254 organizations, including public interest groups, anchor institutions, trade associations and broadband service providers, in a Monday call to action letter to policymakers in Washington. The letter cites a September report by Carol Mattey, a former deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission, which said broadband revenues should be incorporated into the USF base of money to draw upon.

“Unfortunately, this universal service system is in danger of collapse because the mechanism that funds it has not been updated since it was adopted nearly 25 years ago,” the letter said. The USF program is a relic from 1997 and a product of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The letter features organizations including Public Knowledge, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, Gigabit Libraries Network, California Emerging Technology Fund, and a number of telecoms and telecom associations and anchor institutions from over a dozen states.

The contribution percent – the percent providers must pay of their voice revenues – has reached an all-time high in the second quarter this year, at 33.4 percent in the second quarter this year, and decreased slightly after that. Mattey and the signatories, however, warn that the contribution could soar as high as 40 percent in the coming years, as the fund operates at around $10 billion annually.

Citing the Mattey report, the letter suggests that including broadband revenues into the fund would reduce the USF fee to less than 4 percent, adding it would not stunt broadband adoption or retention, as fees are often passed down to customers.

“Our recommendation would reduce regulatory uncertainty, would better reflect evolving uses of services, would be straightforward to administer, and would be more equitable and nondiscriminatory for residential and business consumers than the current system,” the letter said.

“Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission could make this change under its existing authority without requiring new legislation,” the letter added, as Mattey and Greg Guice, Public Knowledge director of government affairs, said at a conference recently.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested earlier this year that Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook should contribute to the fund because they benefit from broadband services. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the idea “intriguing,” while FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington also raised the idea at an event in September.

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Universal Service

Experts Urge FCC Unilaterally Broaden Revenue Base of Universal Service Fund

Consultants say the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to do so.

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Carol Mattey and Greg Guice at INCOMPAS event on October 25.

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2021 – Telecommunications experts are recommending that the Federal Communications Commission unilaterally expand the revenue base of the Universal Service Fund to include broadband revenues, rather than waiting on Congress to do so.

Advocates such as Public Knowledge Director of Government Affairs Greg Guice cite congressional infighting over the bipartisan infrastructure bill as an example of inefficiency in the legislature that would stall the passage of urgent reform for the USF, a fund that helps deliver basic telecommunications services to low-income Americans and those in remote regions.

Telecommunications policy experts said at the INCOMPAS Show in Las Vegas October 25, on which Guice was a panelist, that it is essential that the USF force broadband revenues into the pool of funds, as the fund’s overreliance on voice revenues – even as those revenues decline – is putting a strain on the programs.

Guice and Carol Mattey, principal of Mattey Consulting LLC and former deputy chief of the FCC, told Broadband Breakfast Tuesday that the agency has the jurisdiction to broaden the base of the contribution to the USF under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 if it is in the public interest.

“My view is the FCC has the statutory authority to assess broadband internet access service,” said Mattey in an email. “Under existing law — specifically, section 254(d) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 —  the FCC has the statutory authority to require any ‘providers of interstate telecommunications’ to contribute to the universal service fund if the public interest warrants.

“The FCC has classified broadband internet access service as an information service,” she added. “Under the ’96 Act, the definition of an information service is a service that offers the capability to generate, acquire, store, transform, etc. etc. information ‘via telecommunications.’”

Recommendations for reform

Mattey published a report in September that laid out the case for the fund to be expanded to incorporate a broadband range of money sources, including broadband.

And there has been no shortage of recommendations to help the fund prosper. Earlier this year, a panel of experts debated the merits of having Congress wholly assume contributions to the fund from general tax dollars, while others suggested that recommendation would destabilize the fund because it would swing with the political winds. Those people, instead, focused on simply broadening the base to include other sources, including broadband.

More recently, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr penned an op-ed in Newsweek recommending the fund include contributions from Big Tech because that industry benefits from broadband. It was a suggestion that FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called “intriguing.”

But while Guice and Mattey argue for the FCC to step in and make changes unilaterally, in a one-on-one interview with the Internet Innovation Alliance in September, FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington – in pontificating about Carr’s recommendation for Big Tech contributions – said he didn’t want to get ahead of Congress on the matter, suggesting a wait and see approach.

USF in need of change

Over the last two decades, the USF has seen the revenues subject to its assessment decline by 63%. This money goes to support four main programs: high cost support for rural areas, Lifeline for low income areas, the E-rate program for schools and libraries as well as a rural healthcare support program.

This year, the contribution percentage relative to revenues hit an all time high.

The panel at the INCOMPAS show pinpointed the major factor behind declining USF revenues as decreases in mobile service revenues due to providers setting lower mobile rates. These decreases come despite continual increases in communications revenues overall.

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