Industry Consensus Plan On USF Reform In Offing

Look for some major telecom firms to jointly file a Universal Service Reform plan next week with the Federal Communications Commission.

The commission has been seeking industry input and Verizon executive vice president Tom Tauke said at a Minority Media & Telecommunications Counsel conference the agency would get it. That plan is on how to transition the fund from phone service to broadband, which is a major goal in the FCC's push for Universal Service Fund reform.

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who also spoke at the conference, was asked whether he was optimistic about that industry consensus and his reaction was mixed.

He called universal service a "thorny" issue. "You can't make everyone happy and you have to do what the right thing is and get on with it." He did level that directly as a criticism of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, but others have criticized the chairman for being to eager to achieve consensus before acting, the network neutrality rules being a case in point.

But McDowell suggested that lack of action predated the current commission by a bit. "I think one reason it has been 12 or 13 years since the FCC has really done anything major in universal service is in part looking to make everyone happy."

The chairman's plan had initially been August for a USF reform item, McDowell pointed out, which slipped to September and then October. "I start to get anxious when I hear about those dates slipping away," he said.

One of the reasons for the need for speed he said, is that if the president appoints two new FCC commissioners before a vote, they might, understandably, need and deserve time to vet the "complicated and arcane" issues, which could further delay the proceeding. He did add that given the names being reported, they would already be familiar with the issues already. (Those names are believed to be Jessica Rosenworcel, top Senate Commerce Communications counsel for the Democratic seat of exiting Michael Copps, and Ajit Pai, former FCC and Senate Judiciary counsel, for the vacant Republican seat).

He said it was kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome for him since he has been close on USF before, back in 2007 when two Republicans and two Democrats were in agreement on reform. (holdout, then chairman Kevin Martin, would not bring the item up for a vote).
And in addition to getting reform of the payments out in an NPRM, he said there needs to be an NPRM on how the contributions are made. "It is one thing to say what you are going to buy. It's another thing to say how you are going to pay for it."

Migrating the USF to subsidize broadband buildout-it is now focused on traditional phone subsidies--is one of the elements of the FCC's National Broadband Plan.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.