FCC Learns That Ignoring Problems Does Not Make Them Go Away; Can Often Make Them Worse

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One of the hardest things about growing up is learning how to face hard problems.  The easy impulse is always to try and ignore a hard problem and hope that it goes away.  The flaw in this strategy is that it almost never works.  In fact, it usually only makes the problem worse.  Oftentimes, it makes the problem worse in ways that you never could have expected.  Eventually there is a moment where you realize that the only way to solve the problem is to face it head on, even if that means making some hard decisions.  That is the moment you grow up a little bit.

And thus, we find ourselves considering today’s filing by Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition about text messaging and the Universal Service Fund.

In terms of text messaging, the FCC has not yet grown up.  Over three years ago Public Knowledge, along with a number of other public interest organizations, alerted the FCC that unchecked carrier control of text messaging was starting to get out of control.  In a petition, we urged the FCC to classify text messaging the same way that it classifies phone calls.  That would extend similar protections to the similar services.

That year, 2007, Americans sent 363 billion text messages.  The incident that prompted the petition was Verizon’s decision to block messages that the political group NARAL was trying to send to its members

In the years since, some things have changed.  Text messaging experienced a massive growth in popularity.  In 2010, Americans sent each other 2.1 trillion messages.  In December of 2010 alone they sent more than half as many messages as in the entire year of 2007.

The uses of text messaging grew along with its popularity.  Text messages are not just about quick notes to friends or ways to enter contests.  They are used to pay for parking at meters, donate to charities, and find safe places for runaway teens.

As the uses have expanded, so have the problems.  Carriers interfered with fundraising for Haitian earthquake relief.  They blocked messages that consumers requested that the carrier was not comfortable with.  They fragmented and limited donations to help with the Japanese tsunami.

All the while, the FCC has watched, hoping the problems would work themselves out.  The FCC knew that any decision about text messaging would anger the wireless carriers, so it dodged making one.  Occasionally it would mention something about worrying about text message spam as an excuse for inaction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had dealt with the same problem before and that the current cobbled together system is not doing a very good job of blocking spam texts today.

Recently, as it inevitably must, ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away started to cause unexpected problems.  This time, it was with the Universal Service Fund.  The Universal Service Fund is designed to make sure that everyone can have access to basic phone service.  It draws funding from providers of service (who, in turn, draw it from you – look for “FCC fees” on any of your phone bills).

USAC, the entity charged with auditing Universal Service Fund contributions, wrote a letter to the FCC in April requesting clarification.  Some carriers had been including fees from text message plans in their contributions, while others had not.  As the FCC has fastidiously avoided any sort of decision on the proper status of text messaging, USAC did not know which one was the correct decision.

In theory, this forces the FCC’s hand.  In order to protect the future viability of the Universal Service Fund (a very important program), it needs to make a decision about text messaging.  Ideally, this would be an opportunity to learn that hard lesson about ignoring problems hoping they would go away.  One sign that the FCC is starting to grow up would be to see it act to resolve this, instead of trying to dodge the issue yet again.

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