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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.

 

Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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Broadband's Impact

Broadband Speeds Have Significant Impact on Economy, Research Director Says

From 2010 to 2020, a 10.9 percent growth in broadband penetration drove .04 percent increase in GDP, the study found.

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Photo of Alan Davidson of the NTIA, Caroline Kitchens of Shopify, Raul Katz of Columbia University (left to right)

WASHINGTON, June 28, 2022 – Broadband and higher speeds have made significant contributions to economic growth over the last decade, according to a study discussed at a Network On conference Tuesday.

Raul Katz, director of business strategy research at Columbia University, conducted his research to determine where the United States economy would be if broadband had not evolved since 2010. He developed four models to explain the economic contribution of broadband, and all found support to suggest that broadband development has contributed to substantial economic growth.

The long-run economic growth model showed that between 2010 and 2020, a 10.9 percent growth in broadband penetration drove a .04 percent increase in gross domestic product – the measure of the value of goods and services produced in the nation. States with higher speed broadband had an economic impact of an additional 11.5 percent.

“States with higher speeds of broadband have a higher economic effect,” said Katz. “Not only is there penetration as a driver, but there’s also… return to speed. At faster speeds, the economy tends to be more efficient.”

The study found that if broadband adoption and speed had remained unchanged since 2010, the 2020 GDP would have been 6.27 percent lower, said Katz.

Caroline Kitchens, a representative for ecommerce platform Shopify, said Tuesday that there’s been great growth in the ecommerce business, which relies entirely on a broadband connection. “Worldwide, Shopify merchants create 3.5 million jobs and have an economic impact of more than $307 billion. It goes without saying that none of this is possible without broadband access.”

“We have really seen firsthand how broadband access promotes entrepreneurship,” said Kitchens, indicating that this has promoted a growing economy in over 100 countries.

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