Should The USF Cover Broadband?

The Universal Service Fund was founded for an undeniably positive purpose- to amass the funds needed to make sure that everyone in the U.S., regardless of their economic status or geographic location, have access to advanced communication technology. While there are naturally a few opponents of the goals of this fund, support for providing universal access to top communication technologies tends to cross partisan lines. Access to communication technologies increasingly spells the difference between success and failure in today’s world and if we want to uphold our national dream of equal opportunity, then we need to make sure all of us have regular, reliable and affordable access to the same communication tech.

Setting unbridled idealism aside, we can just about all agree that increasing access to telecom services within poor communities is a good thing.

So why is the USF so controversial?

Some people, mostly telecom industry professionals, like to argue about how the USF is funded. There are certainly a few glaring chinks in that armor, but these day’s we’re noticing a much bigger tussle over defining the boundaries of the USF. These days, the debate rages fiercer over what technologies, precisely, we need to spread equitably around the country.

You see, the modern USF was founded with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While this act was revolutionary due in no small part to the fact it was the first telecom act to lay out legislation pertaining to the Internet, most of the “advanced communication technology” it described providing for poor communities related to old landline-style systems.

Basically; when it was first set down the USF was mostly concerned with making sure everyone in the country was able to make a cheap phone call to whomever they want. Way back in 1996 the USF didn’t really address the question about whether or not we should provide Internet access to everyone in the country.

Is the Internet Essential Communication Technology?

We’re still tangling with this dilemma today. Sure, we’ve all but settled the question about whether Internet access is necessary to create equal opportunity in the modern world (it is), we’re in the middle of debating whether high speed broadband-enabled Internet access fits the bill. Is it enough to simply provide reliable Internet access, even if it’s slow? Or does high-speed Internet access now represent the same essential human right as basic PSTN connections in 1996?

I’d argue that yes, high-speed Internet represents just as essential a communication technology in the modern world as landline networks were 16 years ago. You can look at this a couple ways, but the answer ends up the same no matter what:

  • The modern Internet is increasingly designed with high-speed access in mind. Individuals with access to dial-up quality Internet connections are arguably accessing a different, and lesser, Internet than those with broadband connectivity.
  • The modern Internet increasingly integrates with (often data-intensive) applications and programs that may be essential for success. Without high-speed Internet these applications and programs become useless.
  • Communication technologies are increasingly flocking to the Internet, and these technologies increasingly require faster and faster connections to utilize properly. Anyone who has attempted to use a VoIP service over a slow and unreliable internet connection understands the necessity of broadband for modern communication.

If the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were released today I feel strongly it would have to label high-speed Internet just as essential as landlines and mobile tech, which means ensuring universal broadband access would absolutely represent an appropriate usage of the USF.