Friday, December 11, 2009

Defining 'universal service' in telecommunications could pave way for rural future or roll clock back

UPDATE, Dec. 19: As long expected, the Federal Communications Commission this week proposed using part of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes rural telephone service, "to meet a congressional mandate to give every U.S. home access to high-speed Internet service," Cecilia Kang reports for The Washington Post. "The program raises about $7 billion annually from fees on long-distance phone service, and the idea of redirecting those funds has upset rural phone carriers, which have come to rely on the subsidies." The proposal was among several aimed at making broadband universally available. (Read more)

The idea of universal telecommunications service has come to signify a moral right "of a nation's citizenry to be provided with access to basic technological goods and services like electricity, telephone and, now, broadband," Sharon Stover and Nick Muntean write for the Daily Yonder. But universal service hasn't always held that connotation, the University of Texas researchers write, and they say Congress should consider revising the legal definition of the term to include broadband access and consider several important elements.

Between 1894 and 1912, many telephone companies raced to set up their own networks and overcome Alexander Graham Bell's market advantage, but Bell refused to connect his network to competitors. The only way to reach subscribers from competing exchanges was to subscribe to both networks, an option that was only affordable to businesses. That brought the first call for universal service, or interconnection of the networks, instead of dual service. In 1934 the Communications Act formalized the status of Bell's American Telephone and Telegraph as a regulated monopoly, and calls for universal service dissipated.

The current concept of universal service came from a second attempt by AT&T in the 1970s to fight against competing long-distance providers. The 1996 Telecommunications Act revised the 1970s-era definition to require that the Federal Communications Commission ensure that such basic telephone services should be available "at just, reasonable, and affordable rates," and stipulating consumers in rural areas be provided with telecommunications services at a level of quality and at rates "reasonably comparable" to those available in urban areas.

As lawmakers consider expanding universal service to include broadband, "If proprietary, privately-held infrastructures are favored over net neutrality and shared infrastructure with multiple ownership types ... the 21st century version of universal service might become eerily similar to that of the early 20th century," Strover and Muntean write. They say universal service must be used to bring access to previously overlooked citizens, and "We must ensure that universal service does not again simply become an empty slogan that legally protects and perpetuates the status quo." (Read more)

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