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.
Experts Urge FCC Unilaterally Broaden Revenue Base of Universal Service Fund
Consultants say the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to do so.
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.
Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline
The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.
In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.
As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.
In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.
In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.
The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.
And it needs to act before December 1.
Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.
Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.
First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.
Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.
Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.
- The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
- Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
- The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.
Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.
Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.
The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.
Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
Experts Concerned About Connectivity After Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund Runs Dry
April 1, 2021 – Experts are concerns about the long-term implications of the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program (EBB) running out of money without a plan for what happens after.
The fund, created by Congress in December, provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet. The fund will cease when all the money is used up or within six months, whichever happens sooner.
Clare Liedquist Andonov, principal at Herman and Whiteaker, LLC, said Wednesday during the CCA mobile carriers show that if all people on Lifeline — an older FCC program that provides monthly discounts for eligible low-income subscribers for internet and telephone services – subscribe to the fund, the money will “be exhausted within about four months.”
John Nakahata, partner at Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis LLP, said both the EBB and Emergency Connectivity programs are simply short-term stimulus plans that are not designed to last long.
Andonov said she is concerned about what happens after such funding ceases to exist. “What happens after four months?” she asked. “Do you disconnect those people?” She said the infrastructure built to connect people online in the first place would go to waste if the EBB program ceased operations in a matter of months, alongside the administrative costs to run the program.
To combat the expenditure of EBB funding in the mere four months projected by Andonov, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced comprehensive bicameral broadband infrastructure legislation on March 12 to expand access to affordable high-speed internet for all Americans.
“In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code,” said a press release from Klobuchar’s office. “This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.” If passed, Cole said it would allow the EBB program to last for an entire year; but even then, one year is not enough, they say, as broadband should be accessible for people indefinitely.
To address this challenge, there is some $100 billion set for recently-introduced broadband infrastructure bills being considered in Congress. That money is spread between three bills that would change the nation’s definition of served and unserved people with broadband by dramatically upping the threshold for broadband speeds.
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