Stevens Seeks USF Expansion to Broadband

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens may no longer be chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, but the Alaskan Republican is still stumping hard to expand Universal Service Fund (USF) obligations to broadband services.

As the new minority-ranking member on the committee, Stevens Thursday introduced the Universal Service for Americans Act (USA), which would collect fees from broadband and Voice over IP (VoIP) users to subsidize telecom services in high-cost and rural areas.

The bill is largely the same as the USF reforms Stevens inserted in last year’s ill-fated Senate telecom reform legislation. The new fee would be reflected as a line item on consumers’ bills.

Under current law, long-distance customers pay the bulk of the USF payments, which have traditionally been used to underwrite telephone service and to provide Internet connections and support services for schools, libraries and health care facilities.

With the dramatic decline in long-distance rates over the last decade, the USF fund has been challenged to meet its obligations. Mismanagement of the fund, particularly in its E-rate program for schools and libraries, has created problems for the USF.

“Through the years, our nation’s universal service program has ensured that rural Americans…have access to basic telephone and cell phone service,” Stevens said in a statement. “The universal service program is essential to bringing broadband, distance learning and telemedicine to rural Alaska, as well as the rest of our nation.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in June VoIP providers must contribute a portion of their revenues to the USF. The ruling only applies to VoIP services that interconnect with the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

Under Stevens’ bill, the FCC regulations would become law.

“The bill will ensure that schools, libraries and health clinics in rural Alaska and the rest of the nation continue to receive universal service funds on a timely basis,” Stevens said.

Which is exactly what Stevens had in mind last year when he was the chief architect of a massive telecom reform bill that included USF reform. A fierce debate over network neutrality, though, killed the entire legislation.

Stevens has been a long-time advocate of USF reform, as has new Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Inouye’s office said Friday the senator has not decided if he will co-sponsor Stevens’ bill.

Support among Stevens’ fellow Republicans on the committee is also questionable.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) last year told a Progress and Freedom Foundation gathering that the USF is a tax, not a charitable subsidy. “It distorts the marketplace. There’s no question about it,” Sununu said.

In the House, lawmakers last year chose not to put any USF reforms in their telecom bill.

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