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Democracy & Technology Blog “Where’s The Outrage?”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) rightly worries that current universal service mechanisms are unsustainable as consumers migrate to Internet phone services that are lightly taxed and regulated (these services clearly should contribute their fair share). Stevens and others also believe that rural America won’t get broadband services without subsidies (we can’t know this for sure, because we have never tried the alternative approach of removing all of the barriers to competition and investment).
Anyway, while Internet content and conduit providers obsess over net neutrality, something equally harmful is lurking in the shadows. A little noticed provision in the Senate’s “staff working draft” designed to expand the universal service funding base could have profound consequences.
Currently, consumers of “telecommunications” services contribute billions of dollars to subsidize telephone service in rural areas. “Telecommunications” include telephone, cell phone and, for the moment, DSL services. DSL has been deregulated, and the requirement that it contribute to universal service is temporary. VoIP contributes a small amount, but nothing like a fair share. The Senate staff draft expands the category of contributors and ensures that they all pay equally. Its true that the Internet backbone would not contribute to universal service, but so what? Everything that travels to or from the public Internet would pay.
Here’s how this looks:

”(1) CONTRIBUTION MECHANISM.–
”(A) IN GENERAL.–Each communications service provider shall contribute as provided in this subsection to support universal service.”

”COMMUNICATIONS SERVICE.–The term ‘communications service’ means telecommunications service, broadband service, or IP-enabled voice service (whether offered separately or as part of a bundle of services).”

”(A) BROADBAND SERVICE.–The term ‘broadband service’ means any service used for transmission of information of a user’s choosing with a transmission speed of at least 200 kilobits per second in at least 1 direction, regardless of the transmission medium or technology employed, that connects to the public Internet for a fee directly–
”(i) to the public; or
”(ii) to such classes of users as to be effectively available directly to the public.”

Setting aside the issue of VoIP — whose free ride should clearly end — advocates of expanding the funding base sound like tax collectors when they argue that spreading the burden will lower the individual contributions. Contributions that are set low initially are, of course, much easier to raise in the future. And that will happpen, because there are no limits on the growth of most of the universal service funding mechanisms.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.