Is the FCC jumping the gun on broadband and the universal service fund?

by on December 2, 2009 · 0 comments

In a speech yesterday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pledged to revisit the Federal Communications Commission’s universal service programs for telecommunications as part of the National Broadband Plan: 

 The key points for today are these: USF is a multi-billion dollar annual fund that continues to support yesterday’s communications infrastructure. The goal of universality is as important as ever — and to meet our country’s innovation goals, we need to reorient the fund to support broadband communications. This is a thorny issue, with no shortage of practical and statutory challenges. We need to wring savings out of the system, protect consumers, avoid flashcuts, while ultimately moving USF in the direction it needs to go to support our 21st century platform for innovation. 

The USF program spends approximately $7 billion annually. Most of the money goes to subsidize phone service in “high cost” areas. Eeuww – phone service.  So twentieth century! All of us who have not yet shifted 100% of our personal communications to Facebook and Twitter pay for the universal service fund via surcharges of about 12 percent on our wireless and  wireline phone bills, including VOIP. (Dirty little secret: you also pay for universal telephone service if you use a wireless broadband card, because each card is assigned a phone number.) 

Genachowski’s comment follows some rather interestingly-timed announcements from the FCC’s broadband task force. On November 13, the task force asked for public comment on the role the universal service fund and “intercarrier compensation” (another, more opaque set of transfers from consumers in general to rural phone companies) should play in the national broadband plan. Comments are due December 7. Five days after soliciting comments, on November 18, the FCC announced that the structure of the universal service fund is one of the “critical gaps” in the path to universal broadband.

I doubt the FCC has telepathically determined what the parties will say in the comments they file on December 7, but there’s no need to. The FCC has ground through so many rounds of comments on universal service reform that the problems and potential solutions are well-known. At a conference on universal service about five years ago, I recall one speaker commented, “Everything that can be said about universal service has already been said, but not everyone’s had a chance to say it, so that’s why we still have conferences on it.” About a year ago, the FCC almost used a court-imposed deadline as an opportunity to actually reform universal service and intercarrier compensation, but the commissioners failed to reach consensus.

Here are some major problems with the universal service fund, in no particular order:

  • It subsidizes voice phone service with built-in incentives for inefficiency on the part of providers.
  • It subsidizes wireless voice service without limiting the subsidy to one essential connection per household, so it has effectively created an entitlement to both wired and mobile phone service in rural areas.
  • The FCC does not measure or track the outcomes produced by the subsidies to see what they actually accomplish for the public. (Section 201 of the draft Boucher-Terry USF reform bill would require the FCC to adopt outcome-oriented performance measures.)
  • The contribution mechanism acts like a percentage tax that discourages use of price-sensitive services like long-distance, wireless voice, and wireless broadband.
  • The “death of distance” has slashed long-distance phone charges, which means wireless bears a growing percentage of the burden and the funding mechanism may well be unsustainable.

(For more detail on these issues, read the assortment comments on USF reform by various Mercatus Center colleagues and me here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. BTW, did I mention this issue has been beaten to death?)

So is the FCC jumping the gun, rushing to judgment on universal service before the comments are in?  Heck no. It’s about time.

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