December 30, 1997
Re: Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service; Access Charge Reform, Price Cap Performance Review for Local Exchange Carriers, Transport Rate Structure and Pricing, End User Common Line Charge
Today's decision provides clarifications and mid-course corrections on dozens of issues that have arisen in the course of our universal service proceeding. These particular issues are ones that require resolution before January 1, 1998. That is when the first phase of changes in all aspects of the new universal service regime become effective, as do integrally related changes in the structure of interstate access charges. Other reconsideration issues will be addressed at a later time.
The implementation details we are addressing today matter a great deal to the beneficiaries of the support mechanisms for low-income consumers, consumers in high cost regions, and schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities. The debate surrounding this order, however, is on larger issues, including the basic thrust of our universal service regime.
Almost two years after enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, many people are talking about what's right and what's wrong with the law -- and with the way in which it is being implemented. I welcome an examination of these issues and am delighted to participate. Unfortunately, some of the discussion is shedding heat, not light.
As the one remaining FCC commissioner who participated in the deliberations of the Federal-State Joint Board on universal service as well as the Commission's comprehensive decision of May 1997, I write separately to provide the context for our decision today and for our ongoing efforts to implement Section 254 of the Communications Act.
Congress deliberated on telecommunications policy on and off for two decades, before finally passing landmark legislation in February 1996. The law that emerged was wisely directed at three overarching goals: competition, universal service, and deregulation.
From the very day when the legislation was passed, the FCC and the state commissions have been industriously implementing the will of Congress. At the FCC, there have been literally scores of rulemakings. Each of them involved competition, universal service, or deregulation, and sometimes all three. Throughout these many months, no subject has received more attention than universal service.
The fundamental goal of the Telecommunications Act is to enable every American to benefit from increased opportunities to use electronic communications. The new law revitalizes this nation's historic commitment to facilitate access to telephone services. Specific statutory universal service goals are ambitious, but also achievable:
The FCC has embraced all of these noble goals. Over the past two years, we have worked diligently to translate each element of this grand vision into a practical reality -- while strictly adhering to the statutory language.
The universal service proceeding has involved a truly all-encompassing review of existing universal service support mechanisms and of alternative ways in which the universal service provisions of the Telecommunications Act can be effectuated. Interested parties from across the nation have presented facts, analyses, suggestions, and insights to the Joint Board and to the Commission. The record stands at more than 100,000 pages and counting. A dedicated team of federal and state staff has considered every statutory provision and every comment filed. Decisions have been made by a state consumer advocate, four state public utility commissioners, and the FCC.
Remarkably, there has been a high level of agreement about the specific steps that should be taken to implement the statute. On virtually every issue considered by the Joint Board and the FCC, decisions were made by consensus.
The first vital implementation steps for all aspects of universal service are just now occurring. Low-income and high-cost support are already being provided, even as we refine the specific support mechanisms. Now, support for schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities will also be available.
Specifically, on January 1, 1998, high-cost support, for the first time, is becoming competitively portable. This will be critical for new entrants wishing to compete with incumbents. Low-income assistance will be introduced in those states where it has never before been available, and increased in all the others. Students will soon be more likely to have access to phone lines for distance learning. Teachers will be able to call parents from classrooms, to praise a child's performance. Library patrons will be able to access a world of information on the internet. The quality of rural health care will improve, and its cost will decline, as communications tools are employed.
While we have made enormous progress, much remains to be done. We have not yet solved such monumental issues as how best to wring out billions of dollars of implicit high-cost subsidies in inter- and intra-state rates and establish instead a framework that is adequate, explicit, efficient, and competitively neutral. We are still in search of good ideas for a mechanism for high-cost support that transcends traditional jurisdiction-driven thinking in pursuit of an important and long-standing national objective. These matters will require new levels of state-federal partnership, but constructive ideas from any quarter are welcome. Importantly, even though these issues are not yet settled, consumers in high-cost areas will continue to receive subsidized telephone service without interruption.
A host of other issues await attention: How can we better harness competition to obtain the desired communications benefits for low-income consumers, for consumers in high-cost areas, and for schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities? What more can be done to ensure that universal service support is used only as intended, minimizing waste and abuse in every facet of administration? What solutions are available to address the needs of those who live in areas -- thankfully few -- in which telephone service is nonexistent?
One need not regard the past decisions of the Joint Board or the Commission as "perfect" to believe that what we are doing is fundamentally sound, consistent with the statute, and eminently worthwhile. We can and should continue to advance Congress's universal service goals, by implementing universal service changes, even as we rethink and refine what we have done already. In the context of today's relatively narrow order, for example, I myself have some questions:
In my view, these and other uncertainties, as well as unresolved issues of the sort mentioned above, do not justify indefinite delay in implementing any of the provisions of the statute. The timetable in Section 254(a) of the Communications Act is one that counsels for expeditious action, not delay (it calls for a Joint Board recommendation within nine months, and an FCC decision within 15 months, after enactment). The timetable in Section 706(b) of the Telecommunications Act (uncodified) is to the same effect (30 months after enactment, that is, this coming July, the Commission must begin an inquiry to assess "whether advanced telecommunications capability is being made available to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms)" in a timely fashion and, if not, to "accelerate" the process).
Contrary to suggestions that have appeared in the press, no facet of universal service provision has been neglected. Nor has any good reason been given why twenty-one months of work by a partnership of state commissioners and the FCC should be jettisoned. I see no reason to withhold from consumers any of the universal service benefits that Congress intended. To the contrary, we should move forward, with measured steps, striving to revise the universal service regime to make it ever more responsive to the goals Congress set forth.
To this end we need a continuing good faith dialogue about how best to fulfill the letter and spirit of every provision of Section 254 of the Communications Act. We should review what has already been done, honestly debate those issues that still require further discussion, and constructively search for the best possible solutions.
Like the Eleanor Roosevelt of Adlai Stevenson's description, we should direct our energies to lighting candles, not cursing the darkness.