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With Universal Service Fund Contributions at 32 Percent, Experts Debate Its Sustainability

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Photo of South Dakota Public Utility Commissioner Chris Nelson from Hub City Radio

January 29, 2021 – With contributions into a program intended to extend basic telecommunications services to all Americans now adding an additional 32 cents on top of every dollar of telecommunications service, experts on January 15 debated whether, and how, the Universal Service Fund can be sustained.

There seem to be two proposed solutions to what all agreed was an untenable status quo: First, Congress could appropriate USF out of general revenues. Alternatively, mandatory contributions into the USF could be broadened beyond voice telecommunications services and begin to level fees on broadband internet.

Either way, change seems to be coming, said the four panelists mulling the program at a forum convened by the Federal Communications Bar Association.

Currently, the USF program only requires telecommunications and voice-over-internet protocol providers to collect a percentage of revenues. That percentage amount is set quarterly by the Universal Service Administration Company, a non-profit entity that has been delegated this task by the Federal Communications Commission.

The USF fund administered by USAC pays for programs that expand telecommunications and broadband to rural areas, and also to lower-income Americans, schools and libraries, and rural healthcare.

Now there is a 31.8 percent fee added to all voice telecom bills

In December, the FCC released a public notice that the January through March 2021 contribution was 31.8 per cent of user revenues, a new record. Companies can decide whether to pay it from their own reserves or pass it on to subscribers.

Many agree the program, which is runs about $10 billion per year, is unsustainable. That’s particularly so with voice service revenues declining.

Chris Nelson, vice chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, said taxing broadband service would be acceptable because “we tax everything else.” He alluded to the taboo call for taxing the internet and said that he struggled to make sense of it. He argued that a higher number of landline telephone users are elderly. It doesn’t make sense to charge them more, he said.

Nelson, who is part of a bipartisan organization that has been pressing for USF reform for years, said a hybrid model would work best. That is, half of the contribution can come from residential connections (at a cost to the customer about 55 to 60 cents) and the other half can come from enterprise, at about 8 percent of revenues.

Part of the reason for the increase is what some see as the inverse relationship between telecom revenues and the contribution — as telecom revenues decline, the relative contribution amount increases. John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, said telecom revenues have declined from $67 billion at one point to $34 billion, pointing primarily to the decrease in wireless revenues over the years. Windhausen estimated that expanding the USF base to include broadband revenues would push the contribution down to 2.5 per cent. That won’t affect broadband adoption, he said.

“Including the broadband revenues into the base provides a more stable funding base, so the base of broadband revenues and telecom revenues together is increasing, and there’s even the possibility that the contribution factor would come down in the future as the base of broadband revenues continues to increase,” Windhausen said.

Windhausen added that Congress can supplement this proposed model with appropriations, but said that an appropriation model shouldn’t wholly replace the current fund.

Some say that the revolving Universal Service Fund should be replaced by congressional appropriation

On the flip side, some are clamoring for congressional appropriations, which proponents argue would allow for more stability from broad taxation and would open up the fund to more legislative oversight. AT&T and former FCC chairman Ajit Pai have pushed for this model.

Earlier in January, Pai suggested $50 billion from the record-setting windfall of the ongoing C-Band spectrum auction should be put into the USF for the next five years.

Mary Henze, assistant vice president of federal regulatory affairs at AT&T, doubled-down on this model as a panelist. She said the USF should move to have a congressional budget line item. That was a position also supported by Daniel Lyons, professor at the Boston College Law School who teaches telecom law. He has historically pushed that position, he said.

Lyons said the program would be subject to direct congressional oversight, which would address any fraud or abuse issues in the existing system through inquiries and hearings. He also said direct appropriations would avoid the “market distortions” of trying to tax some goods and not others to fund the program, such as a surcharge on connections or broadband service.

Screenshot from the FCBA event

“They encourage strategic behavior by consumers,” said Lyons, referring to efforts to make communications services fall outside the jurisdiction of the FCC.

Henze said part of solving the market distortion problem is to bring technology companies into the base to spread the contribution out further so it is ultimately less harmful to individual companies or consumers.

The timeline for taxing broadband would also be a problem, Henze argued. Whereas she said it could take companies another year to make that adjustment, Congress, which is now be controlled by Democrats, can quickly put appropriations on budget. Windhausen suggested potentially asking Congress to give the FCC a deadline to come up with a new contribution mechanism in 18 months.

Opponents of making it a congressional budget item included Nelson. He conceded that his opposition come down to politics: Turnover of members of Congress could mean radically different views on appropriations from year to year.

If your company has any questions regarding the steep hike in USF contribution factor or would like to engage in a Communications Taxes & Fees “Optimization” to potentially minimize the economic impact of the ever-skyrocketing Federal USF contribution costs and end user pass-through surcharges, please contact Jonathan S. Marashlian of The CommLaw Group at jsm@commlawgroup.com or 703-714-1313.

Managing Editor Ahmad Hathout has spent the last half-decade reporting on the Canadian telecommunications and media industries for leading publications. He started the scoop-driven news site downup.io to make Canadian telecom news more accessible and digestible. Follow him on Twitter @ackmet.

12 Days of Broadband

How Long Will it Take Congress to Revamp the Universal Service Fund?

Critics urged the FCC to expand the fund’s contribution sources, but the agency chose to punt the decision to Congress.

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Graphic courtesy of Dmitry Kovalchuk / Adobe Stock

From the 12 Days of Broadband:

The Federal Communications Commission this summer waived away the issue of revamping the Universal Service Fund, pointing to the need for Congress to give it the authority to make changes to the multi-billion-dollar fund that goes to support basic telecommunications services to low-income Americans and rural communities. 

Up to this point, the agency had a virtual megaphone to its ear with critics saying that it needs to make the changes necessitated by the fact that the nearly $9-billion fund this quarter is supported only by dwindling legacy voice service revenues as more Americans move over to broadband-driven communications services. 

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FCC

Chairman Pallone Says Service Providers May Be Abusing ACP

‘These reports detail problems customers have faced,” wrote Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone

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Photo of Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-NJ, obtained from Flickr.

WASHINGTON, October 26, 2022 – Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., sent letters to thirteen leading internet service providers requesting information on potential “abusive, misleading, fraudulent, or otherwise predatory behaviors” engaged in through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed concern over allegations that providers are conducting business in violation of the programs’ requirements. Pallone cites as evidence several stories, including pieces from The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

“These reports detail problems customers have faced, including either having their benefits initiated, transferred to a new provider, or changed to a different plan without their knowledge or consent,” Pallone wrote.

“Other customers have reported a delay in the application of the benefit or a requirement to opt-in to future full-price service, which has resulted in surprise bills that have been sent to collection agencies.”

“There have also been reports of aggressive upselling of more expensive offerings, requirements that customers accept slower speed service tiers, and other harmful and predatory practices,” he added.

Pallone asked the providers for several categories of records, including each company’s number of benefit recipients, complaint-resolution protocols, degree of knowledge of incorrect customer bills, protections against upselling, and more. Letter recipients include AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

The ACP, established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, subsidizes monthly internet bills and device purchases for low-income applicants. Non-tribal enrollees qualify for discounts of up to $30 per month, and qualifying enrollees on tribal lands for discounts of up to $75 per month. Enrollees also qualify for one-time discounts of $100 on qualifying device purchases.

The EBB program was the predecessor to the ACP.

The ACP, a favorite of many politicians and federal entities, including the White House, is no stranger to controversy. In September, the FCC Office of Inspector General issued a report that found the ACP doled out over $1 million in “improper payments” to service providers due to “fraudulent enrollment practice[s].”

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Universal Service

Lines Are Sharpening Over Who Drives the Future of Universal Service: Congress or Broadband Providers?

Big communications companies want Congress to tax telecom, while many others want higher fees on broadband service.

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Photo of panel moderator Julie Veach, Alex Minard, Greg Guice, and Angie Kronenberg at AnchorNets 2022.

CRYSTAL CITY, Va., October 14, 2022 – Should contributions to the Universal Service Fund originate from Congress or from fees paid by communications companies to an agency responsible to the Federal Communications Commission? A panel of experts speaking Friday at AnchorNets 2022 debated this issue.

The Universal Service Fund, created in 1997 to improve telecommunications connectivity nationwide, is funded primarily by voice-based services. In recent years, voice-based subscriptions have substantially dropped, creating a revenue crisis and leaving remaining voice-based customers to foot a climbing per-person USF bill.

To rectify this imbalance, industry players have proposed a variety of new funding sources. The two core options are direct taxation by Congress, or by broadening the base of the USF.

The latter option would require broadband providers to contribute to levies collected by the Universal Service Administrative Company, a non-profit entity accountable to the FCC.

Urging Need for FCC Action on Universal Service Fund, Expert Says Congress Too Slow

Speaking at the Friday conference of the Schools, Health and Library Broadband Coalition, Greg Guice, director of government affairs at Public Knowledge, argued that the FCC has the legal authority to require broadband service providers to contribute to the USF.

“The language of the statute says every carrier shall contribute and any other provider of telecommunications that the Commission decides may contribute to Universal Service,” he said.

Angie Kronenberg, chief advocate and general counsel at industry trade group INCOMPAS, said Congress shouldn’t be relied upon for intervention: “It is very helpful when Congress recognizes that there is a problem and is willing to appropriate, but that is not a sustainable, predictable model.”

Petition Challenges Constitutionality of Roles FCC, USAC Play in Universal Service Fund

The USF has of late made substantial investments in broadband projects, and many industry experts say broadband services should be required to contribute thereto. In August, however, the FCC declined to unilaterally reform the fund’s contribution system and asked Congress to review the matter.

“On review, there is significant ambiguity in the record regarding the scope of the Commission’s existing authority to broaden the base of contributors,” the Commission’s report stated.

Alex Minard, vice president and state legislative counsel at NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, suggested Congress should be the driver of USF reform.

Policy Groups Want Bigger Contribution Base to Shore Up the Future of the Universal Service Fund

“Maybe the FCC does have the legal authority – maybe – to include broadband revenues,” said Minard. “If we’re going to…newly tax such a significant part of the economy, maybe it’s Congress that should be making this decision, and not an independent federal regulatory agency.”

Minard also argued the need for USF reform is less urgent than some believe. “It has been in crisis for 20 years,” he said. “What’s a little bit longer?”

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