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December 22, 2000

Separate Statement of
Joint Board Chairman Susan Ness

Re: Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, Recommended Decision, CC Docket No. 96-45

A core principle of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is that all Americans should have access to reasonably comparable services at reasonably comparable rates. When the Joint Board and the FCC undertook a thorough review of the high-cost universal service mechanism following passage of the 1996 Act, we recognized the unique circumstances of rural carriers and did not adopt a "one-size-fits-all" solution. Rather, we worked with the rural carriers and their associations to convene a Rural Task Force that brought together a diverse range of companies, consumer advocates, and government representatives to examine the cost structures and competitive circumstances of rural carriers.

After two years of intensive deliberations, the Rural Task Force unanimously recommended a high-cost mechanism for rural carriers that recognizes not only the significant differences between rural and non-rural carriers, but also the vastly different cost structures among rural carriers. As is the case with any consensus proposal, the framework may not be exactly what any one entity would want. Nevertheless, the Task Force’s framework represents a good compromise – a reasonable, but delicate balance -- among disparate interests that provides the certainty and stability essential for investment in rural America.

I commend the Rural Task Force for their unwavering efforts to develop a predictable and sufficient universal service mechanism for rural consumers. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their hard work. I especially want to thank the chair of the Task Force, Commissioner Bill Gillis of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. He has worked with uncommon fortitude and patience to forge a consensus among warring factions.

For the past ten weeks, the Joint Board has had an opportunity to review the Report and to provide additional guidance to the FCC on the conclusions reached, including the targeting, magnitude, and duration of the support. Some commissioners would have preferred a vastly different regime or a more simplified one, some a significantly shorter timeframe, some a few points of fine-tuning to more precisely direct the funds toward the higher cost areas, while others would have expanded the scope of the review to include issues beyond the Rural Task Force report. In the end, in the interest of time, and with deep appreciation of the hard work of the Rural Task Force, the Joint Board agreed simply to forward the Report to the FCC without recommendations.

Now that the Rural Task Force has completed its work and the Joint Board has sent that recommendation to the Commission, I urge the Commission to move forward as rapidly as possible to bring this process to a successful conclusion. It is essential that we provide certainty to rural carriers by putting in place a high-cost mechanism that makes both economic sense and common sense. The stability offered by such a system will allow rural carriers to plan for the future and undertake necessary investment that benefits rural communities.

In this decision, a number of Joint Board members also request that the Commission refer to the Joint Board the interstate universal service aspects of an access charge reform plan recently submitted by rural carrier associations. I would prefer to proceed concurrently with universal service and access charge reform. The two go hand in glove. Although I agree that the Joint Board should be actively involved in issues that affect high-cost universal service mechanisms, I fear that a formal referral to the Joint Board could delay the process of implementing these reforms beyond the July 1, 2001 target date. Thus, any referral of these issues to the Joint Board should include concrete deadlines that would allow the Commission the ability to adopt appropriate access charge reform on the same timetable that it implements reform of the high-cost mechanism for rural carriers.

I look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Joint Board members as partners in this proceeding as we continue our efforts to fulfill the statutory requirement to preserve and advance universal service for the benefit of all Americans.