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USF Reforms Earn Praise From ACA, PK, Others

Comment was coming in thick and fast Tuesday on the FCC's proposal to revise the fund that companies pay into to support communications service in areas where it is uneconomical for private industry to build out.

There was almost universal support for some portion of the Universal Service Fund reforms.

"ACA is heartened that the FCC's reform proposal seeks to ensure broadband is brought throughout the country while limiting the size of the fund, which will save consumers from paying higher communications fees," said American Cable Association President Matthew Polka. But his praise came with a caveat.

"ACA cautions that USF reform should be a deliberate process, one that provides local telecommunications entities now drawing from the fund with sufficient time to adjust to the newly reformed program. These entities have built telecommunications networks throughout vast areas of the country, and our leaders need to recognize that these networks provide vital services to many Americans," he said.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski reiterated said Tuesday that the proposal would provide a transition period so there was no flash-cut cessation of funding to those getting support for traditional phone service. A key part of the reform is migrating phone support to broadband, though that move is still expected to continue to subsidize voice via IP-based phone service.

"We are pleased that the FCC has started down the long road of reshaping the Universal Service program to meet the demands of today's broadband era and to eliminate the inefficiencies that have developed over the years," said Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn. "We look forward to the Commission tackling many of the complicated and difficult issues that are part and parcel of a true remaking of the program, ranging from contribution levels to the types of service to be supported and which should provide support."

The FCC has left for another day reforms to contributions to the fund, concentrating on who is collecting, who should be collecting, how much they get and how to make sure that is giving the public the best return for their money. Not surprisingly, USF contributions from companies are passed along to customers in the form of a line item on their bills.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (R-W. Va.) gave his shout-out to the effort.

"I congratulate the FCC for taking up the task of universal service reform.  Updating this program-by sharpening its focus on areas of the country without modern communications infrastructure and by improving accountability-is the right thing to do," he said in a statement. "If this is done well, we can help provide broadband and wireless service to every corner of this nation.  This is vital to our future economic and global competitiveness-and essential to making sure no American is left behind in our digital age."

Genachowski invoked Rockeller at the FCC's public meeting Tuesday at which the reform framework was launched. He pointed out, as he had in a speech the day before in USF reform, that he had traveled to West Virginia with Rockefeller a couple of months back and talked to people who lived essentially side by side, but were divided by the fact that one could get broadband service and the other could not.

"During our visit I spoke with people who can't get high-speed Internet or mobile coverage at their home or business, even though communities right next door are connected," he said Monday of the visit. "How frustrating is that?  And how can it be acceptable that millions of Americans and small businesses are missing out on the upside of our digital economy, and on 21st century education and health opportunities?"

Free Press saw the glass as only a fraction full.

"[W]hile we're pleased the FCC is taking another baby step toward reforming the Universal Service Fund," said Researh Director Derek Turner in a statement, "the agency still cannot answer the basic question of where subsidies are actually needed to ensure services are available at reasonable prices."

Free Press was unhappy that the FCC on Tuesday proposed collecting more data on broadband availability rather than imposing those new data-collection requirements.