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May 27, 1999

Separate Statement
Commissioner Susan Ness

Re: Funding for the Second Year of the Schools and Libraries and Rural Health Care Universal Service Support Mechanisms (Federal State Joint Board on Universal Service, CC Docket No. 96-45).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 embraces universal service as one of its fundamental goals – that all Americans should have access to telecommunications and information services at affordable and reasonably comparable rates.

Based upon the recommendations of a bipartisan federal-state joint board, the Commission, in May 1997, adopted an order that: (1) approved a plan that preserved existing explicit funding for rural carriers serving high cost areas; (2) established a forward-looking cost model and national-benchmark regime for determining the cost of service and subsidy necessary for large carriers serving high cost areas; (3) expanded the Lifeline and Link Up programs to enable low income residents in states that did not have a matching program to qualify for this funding; and (4) pursuant to the Snowe-Rockefeller- Exon-Kerrey provisions of the Act, established a schools and libraries support mechanism to provide discounts for telecommunications services and internal connections to link classrooms and libraries to the Internet, as well as a program to provide rates for telecommunications services for rural health care providers that are comparable to those paid by urban providers.

The high cost and low income programs were on-going and were sufficiently funded; the schools and libraries and rural health care funds were new tiles in the universal service mosaic.

Last year Congress raised very legitimate concerns about the structure and priorities of the schools and libraries program. After streamlining the structure of the schools and libraries and rural health care programs, reprioritizing schools and libraries to benefit institutions in the most economically disadvantaged and rural areas first, and undergoing exhaustive audits by the GAO and an outside accounting firm to ensure that adequate procedures are in place to deter and detect waste, fraud, and abuse – all to address Congressional concerns – the two programs finally began to fund applications late last year.

The benefits to date from this funding are readily apparent. Over the past year the number of classrooms connected has more than doubled.

For the schools and libraries program, the demand for telecommunications discounts has well exceeded the level of approved funding. Today, I vote to increase that funding level not to exceed $2.25 billion – the cap recommended by the original bipartisan joint board and adopted by the Commission in1997 – to enable schools and libraries serving some of the most economically disadvantaged and rural areas of the country to connect their classrooms and facilities to the Internet.

Section 254 of the Act wisely and specifically provides for classrooms to have access to advanced telecommunications services. It is in the classroom where the students and teachers assemble for learning. It is in the classroom where distance learning can offer students advanced courses taught by teachers located many miles away. And it is in the classroom where student forays on the Internet can best be protected.

Moreover, the schools and libraries program will help to jumpstart the provision of advanced telecommunications and information services to rural America. In areas where individual households do not yet have access to advanced services, a high-speed Internet connection to a school or library is a tremendous resource for the whole community. It is noteworthy that Section 706 also focuses specifically on providing "advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms)."

In an increasingly global economy, it is essential that we prepare our children and our communities now for the 21st century. Every day, more jobs require computer skills. Providing our children and communities with Information Age tools is key to our future success as a prosperous nation. We cannot afford to wait.