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This is an unofficial announcement of Commission action. Release of the full text of a Commission order constitutes official action. See MCI v. FCC. 515 F 2d 385 (D.C. Circ 1974).

June 12, 1998

Separate Statement of Commissioner Gloria Tristani

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

I strongly support the goals of the schools and libraries program. It is with reluctance that I support today's decision to scale back funding for the program. I do so because I believe it fairly reflect the competing concerns that face us at this point.

It has become all too common in Washington to substitute the word "investment" for "spending." With respect to some types of expenditures, the word "investment" is truly misplaced, but I believe "investment" elegantly captures the nature of the schools and libraries program. The nation's economy is increasingly dependent on the technological competence of its workforce. A fully functioning program is a golden opportunity to help prepare our children for the global, information technology economy. When we make a decision to slow funding for schools and libraries program, as we do today, we decide that fewer children will experience the world of the Internet for the first time. We also decide that, in the near future, fewer young adults entering the workforce will be capable of performing jobs that American companies are desperate to fill. The schools and libraries program is competition policy, and while it will not singlehandedly create a workforce capable of growing our economy in the face of foreign competitors, it is an important step in that direction.

I recognize and respect Congress's wishes with regard to the universal service provisions. Congress speaks for the American people, who are the ultimate source of the FCC's authority. Many members of Congress have told the Commission that they intended high cost support to be the centerpiece of the universal service provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I do not disagree with that point. I take this opportunity to personally reaffirm my commitment to a high cost mechanism that complies with the letter and spirit of the universal service provisions of the 1996 Act. Coming from New Mexico, I have seen first hand the need for high cost support for rural areas. A new high cost mechanism that failed to "preserve and advance universal service" would be flatly at odds with both the Act and the unambiguous will of Congress. Thus, as a matter of both personal belief, as well as professional duty, I am firmly committed to creating a new system of high cost support that keeps local telephone service affordable in rural areas.

Some have argued that the FCC should freeze the schools and libraries program until we complete our work on a new mechanism for supporting local telephone rates in high cost areas. The argument is that the FCC has simply misunderstood Congress's relative priorities as between schools and libraries support and high cost support. I understand why some would feel that way. However, I do not believe we should postpone resolution of the schools and libraries program simply because we have not completed our work on the far more complex high cost plan. Thus, I would reiterate that my support for implementing the schools and libraries program does not in any way affect my commitment to creating a high cost support system that fully complies with section 254 of the Act.

Implementing the schools and libraries portion of the 1996 Act was a very challenging task for the previous Commission, and it continues to present this Commission with difficult choices. But replacing the old system of high cost subsidies with explicit support flows is proving to be a far more difficult task. For one thing, any new mechanism is bound to affect the amounts currently paid and received by individual carriers and individual states. Many carriers and state commissions have devoted enormous resources to devising proposals that seek to accommodate the competing concerns. While some of these proposals are quite different, each has components that satisfy important objectives.

In addition, the new high cost mechanism is particularly important because it will directly affect Congress's goal of bringing consumers competitive choices in telecommunications markets. A system of explicit support that results in underfunding of high cost areas would, as a practical matter, restrict consumers in those areas to a single choice of provider -- the incumbent. Preserving universal service and promoting competition are the hallmarks of the 1996 Act. They are also two sides of the same coin. Thus, in addition to achieving the critical objective of preserving affordable telephone service, the new system of high cost support adopted by this Commission will go far in determining whether Congress's goal of competition is ever realized for millions of Americans. I view the ongoing struggle to implement the new high cost mechanism not as a lack of commitment on our part but as a sign of our commitment to getting it right with respect to high cost funding for rural areas.

I am also concerned that today's action will cause disruption to the education community. The public is not entitled to assume government policies will never change. The government is constantly adding to, modifying, or eliminating rules and regulations. It does so either because the conditions have changed, or because attitudes have changed even as the underlying conditions remain the same. I see no evidence that the conditions justifying the creation of the schools and libraries program have changed. Today, just as on May 8, 1997, there is no question that children will receive better educations if the immense resources of the Internet are made available to them and their teachers. What has changed is the attitude toward the program because of the realization that achieving this worthy goal will cost money. I welcome a thorough discussion of the extent to which consumers are willing to sacrifice to achieve this goal. I have little doubt that consumers are willing to pay for the schools and libraries program. I only regret that it has taken so long for this fundamental dialogue to occur.

Funding of internal connections has become a key focus of the program because it represents approximately 65 percent of the support requested for 1998. I believe the benefits of the schools and libraries program are critically dependent on funding internal connections. Section 254(h)(1)(B) is about bringing the Internet to students. Students are located in classrooms. Therefore, the Internet connection must be brought to the classrooms. Funding basic telephone service and Internet access service for phone lines in principals' offices will not improve education for students. In the past few months, this point was made clear to me when I visited schools in New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Although a few of the classrooms had computers, none had Internet access. Those visits crystallized for me the importance of inside wiring to the success of the schools and libraries program.

It is regrettable that we are funding internal connections for only the schools eligible for 80 and 90 percent discounts. This means the majority of schools that were eligible for discounts on inside wiring will get nothing. Many of the schools I visited did not fall into the 80 or 90 percent discount range, yet their facilities were quite modest and would not be considered wealthy by any measure. Under our decision today, they will receive no funding to connect their classrooms to the Internet. This is a true loss for those students and teachers.

In the end, I hope today's slowdown of the Schools and Libraries Program will prove to be only a detour for this vital program. I note with optimism that some in Congress are exploring the idea of using money collected through the current excise tax on phone bills to fund the Schools and Libraries Program. I hope this idea receives serious consideration.

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