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Universal service is a fundamental tenet of U.S. communications policy. Today, broadband has replaced telephony as the crucial communications service of the 21st Century. For nearly all Americans, broadband is an indispensable service that makes it possible for them to communicate, transact commerce, and participate in civic life. In fact, broadband is so critical that last month Senator Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a bipartisan group of 60 senators, called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) to ensure that rural Americans have access to high-speed broadband.
The FCC is more than capable of taking on this task. As part of its February Open Internet Order, the Commission declared that broadband access service is a Title II “telecommunications service” (a service that transmits data) under the FCC’s rules. In short, because the FCC says broadband is a telecommunications service, it has the authority to achieve the exact results the senators have tasked them with.
What Does This Mean?
The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established in 1997 to extend basic telephone service to all Americans, particularly those living in rural and low-income areas where the cost of building the telephone network discouraged deployment. The USF High Coast program (also known as the Connect America Fund) provides support to broadband providers serving rural communities. Currently, the FCC requires companies receiving support to offer customers basic telephone service.
Voice service has traditionally been offered over a copper network. However, due to technology advances, voice service can now be offered using various infrastructure (copper, fiber optic, wireless) and technologies, such as Internet protocol. Many consumers are opting out of traditional voice services entirely for “voice over Internet protocol” or other online alternatives, making the requirement that USF recipients offer traditional voice service outdated. As a result, companies that currently receive USF support and prefer to provide broadband with voice as an application run the risk of losing the funding they need to serve rural customers.
The senators’ letter correctly recognizes that Americans are migrating from traditional voice services to broadband service and that consumer demand should drive which services are offered. Although Title II has been much maligned in some circles, once reclassification of broadband goes into effect (on June 12),the Commission will have more robust authority under Section 254 of the Communications Act to untie USF support from traditional telephone service. With this authority, the FCC could support standalone broadband with USF funds and achieve the senators’ goals of helping rural Americans access the communications services they rely on.
Additionally, by recognizing that the FCC’s USF rules should “[keep] pace with changing technology and shifting consumer preferences,” the senators’ letter also aligns closely with the FCC’s recent proposal to modernize the Lifeline program to help low-income Americans receive the service that best meets their needs. This could be telephone, broadband, or both. Support for Lifeline has long been bipartisan – the program was created during the Reagan Administration – and today, consumer advocates and ISPs like AT&T agree that “Internet access has quickly become the more needed Lifeline technology for the 21st Century,” and that “[w]e ought to trust eligible consumers to choose which benefit, voice, data, or a combination of both, best meets their needs.”
Ironically, in the aftermath of the FCC’s net neutrality decision, there have been calls to drastically curtail the agency’s authority as well as legislative efforts to implicitly undermine the agency’s ability to address these broadband issues by creating endless procedural barriers to agency action. Those views are counterproductive; as Senator Thune’s letter shows, there is an ongoing role for a forward-looking FCC.
All consumers, especially the most vulnerable communities in our society, need a strong FCC. Without a strong FCC, decisions on essential broadband issues, such as closing the digital divide and connecting rural and low-income Americans, cannot and will not occur.
Title II is the best tool the FCC has at its disposal to address these priorities. Congress should not allow lingering resentment over net neutrality to stand in the way of achieving these bipartisan policy goals.
Image Credit: Flickr user James Vaughan