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While Universal Service Reforms Show Promise, Politics Clouds Fund’s Future

ASPEN, Colorado, August 19, 2015 – In spite of several positive efforts to reform the complex and dated rules that govern the Federal Communication Commission’s universal service fund, key decisions surrounding the $8 billion annual fund remain ineluctably political.

That was the message shared by panelists, including a commissioner at the FCC, speaking at a session on Tuesday at the Technology Policy Institute’s annual forum here.

For example, the panelists — which also include two economists, a cable industry lobbyist and the former director of the National Broadband Plan — applauded efforts to bring greater economic efficiency to telecom network construction through a system known as a “reverse auction.”

They also supported efforts to promote broadband adoption by providing income-based vouchers for the purpose of internet services.

But decisions about the allocation of funds within the USF — and the key question of how the fund is to be paid for — remain political hot potatoes.

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Moderator Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute, with panelists Mignon Clyburn, James Assey, Blair Levin, Gregory Rosston, and Bradley Wimmer.

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ASPEN, Colorado, August 19, 2015 – In spite of several positive efforts to reform the complex and dated rules that govern the Federal Communication Commission’s universal service fund, key decisions surrounding the $8 billion annual fund remain ineluctably political.

That was the message shared by panelists, including a commissioner at the FCC, speaking at a session on Tuesday at the Technology Policy Institute’s annual forum here.

For example, the panelists — which also include two economists, a cable industry lobbyist and the former director of the National Broadband Plan — applauded efforts to bring greater economic efficiency to telecom network construction through a system known as a “reverse auction.”

They also supported efforts to promote broadband adoption by providing income-based vouchers for the purpose of internet services.

But decisions about the allocation of funds within the USF — and the key question of how the fund is to be paid for — remain political hot potatoes.

Embedded image permalink

Moderator Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute, with panelists Mignon Clyburn, James Assey, Blair Levin, Gregory Rosston, and Bradley Wimmer.

“The electorate will decide the right size” of the USF, said Blair Levin, former director of the FCC broadband plan, referring to the 2016 presidential vote. Levin is currently executive director of Gig.U and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Let’s put aside, for now, the question of the budget” and whether fees should be levied on internet connections to pay for the USF, said Levin. Putting that issue aside would allow the FCC to design the best policy, irrespective of how large the fund ultimately will be.

Over the past five years, each of the four main components of the universal service fund have undergone an overhaul. First was the “high-cost fund,” the largest component of the USF, which became the Connect America Fund and the Mobility Fund.

These changes include the implementation of a “reverse auction,” in which the FCC promises to support rural broadband providers based on the bidder who offers to provide broadband at the lowest cost.

The other three components of the USF are the eRate for schools and libraries — changed last year by FCC decisions in July and December – plus the health care and telemedicine fund, and the Lifeline program for low-income connectivity.

Much of Tuesday’s panel discussion, titled “”Universal Service: Towards Broadband, Efficiency and Equity,” revolved around the Lifeline program, which is currently being reviewed and potential modified by the agency.

Too frequently, commentators speak of “lifeline and universal service. Lifeline is universal service. It is one leg in a four-legged stool,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who is spearheading efforts to enhance the current Lifeline program.

Until the changes over the past five years, universal service monies could not be used directly on expenditures for broadband. That remains the case with Lifeline; although FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed changing that.

Two economists participating on the panel said that Lifeline has become an income-redistributing effort instead of a program ensuring greater access for low-income individuals.

“A lot of the money from the Lifeline program goes to households that would subscribe to telephone service even if there were no subsidy,” said Bradley Wimmer, an economics professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Clyburn pushed back on that point.

Speaking about low-income individuals, she said that “people want to communicate, and they will make sacrifices to do so. Should they make the tradeoffs they are making to be able to communicate?”

Additionally, Clyburn said, 44 percent of those who are low-income end up having their smart phones disconnected because of economic hardships.

However, all of the panelists supported efforts to use vouchers to move the Lifeline program in a direction of allowing low-income consumers greater communications choices.

The four of USF programs are funded by a 17 percent fee on telephone communications, a number that is adjusted for cell phone users. Currently, broadband connections are not subject to the fee, but that might change.

When Congress put legislation in place to limit taxes and fees on internet connections in the 1990s, demand for such services were not “inelastic.” That economics term refers to goods, like automobile fuel, that consumers tend to purchase irrespective of how the price changes.

“Now, they are relatively inelastically demanded,” said Gregory Rosston, deputy director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. That means that, over the past two decades, consumers have come to regard broadband as more of a necessity.

But James Assey, executive vice president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, countered: “At a time we want to promote broadband, why impose additional costs on broadband bills?”

Although most cable companies have not been eligible for universal service funds, Assey said that could change as FCC updates its traditional rules around the Connect America Fund and Lifeline.

Assay also said that cable companies have been among the most active in promoting connectivity through efforts like Comcast’s Internet Essentials. Initiatives designed to spur greater broadband adoption were required of Comcast, the largest cable provider, as part of conditions attached to approval of its merger with NBC Universal.

Levin said that the debate about the USF suffered from a “penny-wise, pound-foolish” mentality. “How much more efficient would government be if it knew that everyone was online?”

Being able to reconfigure government systems and make them almost-exclusively online could end up saving billions, if not tens of billions of dollars every year, he said.

 

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband is Affordable for Middle Class, NCTA Claims

According to analysis, the middle class spends on average $69 per month on internet service.

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Photo of Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at NCTA

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Even as policymakers push initiatives to make broadband less expensive, primarily for low-income Americans, broadband is already generally affordable for the middle class, argued Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at industry group NCTA, the internet and television association. 

Availability of broadband is not enough, many politicians and experts argue, if other barriers – e.g., price – prevent widespread adoption. Much focus has been directed toward boosting adoption among low-income Americans through subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program, but legally, middle-class adoption must also be considered. In its notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration required each state to submit a “middle-class affordability plan.”

During a webinar held earlier this month, Cimerman, who works for an organization that represents cable operators, defined the middle class as those who earn $45,300–$76,200, basing these boundaries on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2020. And based on the text of an Federal Communications Commission action from 2016, he set the threshold of affordability for broadband service at two percent of monthly household income.

According to his analysis, the middle class, thus defined, spends on average $69 per month on internet service. $69 is about 1.8 percent of monthly income for those at the bottom of Cimerman’s middle class and about 1.1 percent of monthly income for those at the top. Both figures fall within the 2-percent standard, and Cimerman stated that lower earners tended to spend slightly less on internet than the $69-per-month average.

Citing US Telecom’s analysis of the FCC’s Urban Rate Survey, Cimerman presented data that show internet prices dropped substantially from 2015 to 2021 – decreasing about 23 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent for “entry-level,” “most popular” and “highest-speed” residential plans, respectively. And despite recent price hikes on products such as gas, food, and vehicles, Cimerman said, broadband prices had shrunk 0.1 percent year-over-year as of September 2022.

Widespread adoption is important from a financial as well as an equity perspective, experts say. Speaking at the AnchorNets 2022 conference, Matt Kalmus, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, argued that providers rely on high subscription rates to generate badly needed network revenues.

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Broadband's Impact

Federal Communications Commission Mandates Broadband ‘Nutrition’ Labels

The FCC also mandated that internet service provider labels be machine-readable.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday afternoon ordered internet providers to display broadband “nutrition” labels at points of sale that include internet plans’ performance metrics, monthly rates, and other information that may inform consumers’ purchasing decisions.

The agency released the requirement less than 24 hours before it released the first draft of its updated broadband map.

The FCC mandated that labels be machine-readable, which is designed to facilitate third-party data-gathering and analysis. The commission also requires that the labels to be made available in customers’ online portals with the provide the and “accessible” to non-English speakers.

In addition to the broadband speeds promised by the providers, the new labels must also display typical latency, time-of-purchase fees, discount information, data limits, and provider-contact information.

“Broadband is an essential service, for everyone, everywhere. Because of this, consumers need to know what they are paying for, and how it compares with other service offerings,”  FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. 

“For over 25 years, consumers have enjoyed the convenience of nutrition labels on food products.  We’re now requiring internet service providers to display broadband labels for both wireless and wired services.  Consumers deserve to get accurate information about price, speed, data allowances, and other terms of service up front.”

Industry players robustly debated the proper parameters for broadband labels in a flurry of filings with the FCC. Free Press, an advocacy group, argued for machine-readable labels and accommodations for non-English speakers, measures which were largely opposed by trade groups. Free Press also advocated a requirement that labels to be included on monthly internet bills, without which the FCC “risks merely replicating the status quo wherein consumers must navigate fine print, poorly designed websites, and byzantine hyperlinks,” group wrote.

“The failure to require the label’s display on a customer’s monthly bill is a disappointing concession to monopolist ISPs like AT&T and Comcast and a big loss for consumers,” Joshua Stager, policy director of Free Press, said Friday.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association clashed with Free Press in its FCC filing and supported the point-of-sale requirement.

“WISPA welcomes today’s release of the FCC’s new broadband label,” said Vice President of Policy Louis Peraertz. “It will help consumers better understand their internet access purchases, enabling them to quickly see ‘under the hood,’ and allow for an effective apples-to-apples comparison tool when shopping for services in the marketplace.”

Image of the FCC’s sample broadband nutrition label

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Broadband's Impact

Midterm Control of Congress Remains Uncertain, But States Got Answers to Broadband Votes

Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Kansas and Pennsylvania had broadband-related measures on the ballot.

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Photo of an Ohio voter on November 8, 2022, by Marshall Gorby of the Dayton Daily News

As voters went to the polls on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, broadband-focused initiatives and candidates could be found up and down the ballot all across the country.

Alabama

Alabama voters cast their ballots to decide on a state Constitutional amendment known as the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Funding Amendment. The measure sought to amend the state’s constitution “to allow local governments to use funding provided for broadband internet infrastructure under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and award such funds to public or private entities.”

That measure passed, garnering a “Yes” vote from nearly 80 percent of Alabama voters. With 73 percent of the vote counted late last night, 922,145 “Yes” votes had been tallied with 251,441 “No” votes.

Also in Alabama, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell won her re-election bid to represent Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Sewell, whose district covers a large swath of the Alabama Black Belt, “spent much of her past two years in office bringing American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural Alabama, dedicated to healthcare, broadband access and infrastructure building,” as noted by The Montgomery Advertiser.

Colorado

The Centennial State is not listed as one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that erect barriers to municipal broadband because nearly every community that had a vote has passed it to nullify it. But more communities had to go through that unnecessary process yesterday due to the law known as SB-152 that bans local governments in the state from establishing municipal broadband service absent a referendum.

As of spring 2022, 118 Colorado municipalities, 40 counties and several school districts have opted out of SB-152.

Now Colorado can add to that list.

In Pueblo County, nearly 48,000 ballots were cast with 34,457 or 72 percent, voting yes to opt out of SB 152 while 13,087 (28 percent) cast a “No” vote.

In the City of Pueblo, the county seat, Mayor Nick Gradisar told The Pueblo Chieftain that his city was not looking to build a municipal broadband network but rather to pursue a public-private partnership to bring ubiquitous high-speed Internet service to the city in a way that does not “just allow (broadband companies) to cherry pick the ones that can pay the most.”

Meanwhile, in the City of Lone Tree, one of about a dozen communities located in Douglas County, voters there overwhelmingly approved opting out of SB-152 with over 83 percent of voters casting a “Yes” ballot.

According to the city’s website, the ballot question was put to voters to enable the county to extend broadband infrastructure into Lone Tree. The website goes on to explain what opting out of SB-152 would mean for city residents and businesses:

  • Along with providing support for the County’s efforts, voter approval opens a range of opportunities to improve broadband access or services. Approval would allow the conversation to begin, while not binding the City to any specific actions or timelines.

New Mexico

Similar to the Constitutional question voters decided in Alabama, a ballot question in New Mexico asked voters to modify the New Mexico Constitution to ensure the easy flow of broadband funding. A 1900s era portion of the state’s constitution restricts “lending, pledging credit, or donating to any person, association, or public or private corporation.”

The proposal, which was approved by the New Mexico state legislature last February, passed with a 65 to 35 percent split in favor of adding an exception to the state’s anti-donation clause that will allow the state legislature to appropriate state funds through a majority vote in each chamber for infrastructure that provides essential services such as water, sewer, electricity, and broadband.

Bipartisan Support for Expanding Broadband Access

Yes, one day after the election and it was still unclear which party will control Congress, even as political analysts pontificate on what happened to the “Red Wave.” But, this much is clear: for successful candidates in both parties, at the federal and state-level, expanding access to broadband has become a bipartisan issue.

In New York, Republican State Sen. Dan Stec won his bid re-election, building on his first victory in 2020 when he campaigned for better broadband and mobile phone service. In North Carolina, Renée Price, a Democratic state representative, was elected by a wide margin. During the campaign, Price said her priorities are funding a range of initiatives and that she was particularly focused on increasing access to broadband.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Rick Allen was re-elected to represent Georgia’s 12th Congressional District. Allen said he would “continue to fight for the priorities of the 12th District like securing funding for Fort Gordon and the Savannah River Site, expanding rural broadband, and supporting our farmers and rural America.”

In Kansas, where Republican Congressman Mark Alford was elected to represent Missouri’s staunchly conservative 4th Congressional District, Alford told The Kansas City Star that as he campaigned “’on just about every back road of the district, all 24 counties,’ he heard that the No. 1 issue in the district is lack of rural broadband access.”

Over in Pennsylvania, where Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro won the race to be that battleground state’s next Governor, Shapiro’s campaign told Spotlight PA “he will prioritize expanding quality and affordable access to broadband in rural regions of the state by supporting the newly created Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, and establishing comprehensive subsidies for low-income households with high [I]nternet prices.”

And finally, in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott fended off a challenge from Beto O’Rourke, in the less sexy race for State Comptroller, Republican incumbent Glenn Hegar won his re-election bid in which he touted his record championing the expansion of broadband in the Lone Star State.

Eye On State Legislatures

States are now beefing up or establishing state broadband offices to award billions of dollars for the deployment of new or expanded broadband infrastructure thanks to an historic infusion of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). With those bills already passed and the midterm elections behind us, most of the action on the broadband front will rest in the hands of state lawmakers.

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that “with roughly 9 out of 10 adults in America using the Internet, many consider it to be a necessity of modern life,” which is why there are numerous pieces of broadband-related legislation that was enacted or is pending in the 2022 legislative session.

  • In the 2022 legislative session, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have pending and enacted legislation addressing broadband in issue areas such as educational institutions and schools, dig once, funding, governance authorities and commissions, infrastructure, municipal-run broadband networks, rural and underserved communities, smart communities and taxes. Twenty-six jurisdictions enacted legislation or adopted resolutions: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Authored by Sean Gonsalves, this article originally appeared on the web site of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Broadband Networks Project on November 9, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

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