April 15, 2011

Tax Day Thoughts on the Non-Tax USF Tax

Jerry Ellig

Former Senior Research Fellow

Jerry Brito

Former Senior Research Fellow

While most folks have been obsessing over their income taxes the past few weeks, Jerry Brito and I have been obsessing about a non-tax: the universal service assessments on our phone bills.

More specifically, the Federal Communications Commission has asked for comments on its plan to gradually turn the current phone subsidy program in high-cost rural areas into a broadband subsidy program in high-cost rural areas. This opens up a big tangled can of worms.  Comments are due Monday.  We deal with two issues in our comment:

Definition of broadband: Thankfully, the FCC is asking for comments on its proposal to define broadband as 4 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload. This is an important decision with a big effect on the size of the program. The 4 Mbps definition more than doubles the number of households considered “unserved,” because it doesn’t count 3G wireless or slower DSL or slower satellite broadband as broadband. It also raises the cost of the subsidies by requiring more expensive forms of broadband.

The definition fails to fit the factors the 1996 Telecom Act says the FCC is supposed to consider when determining what communications services qualify for universal service subsidies.  A download speed of 4 Mbps is not “essential” for online education; most online education providers say any broadband speed or even dialup is satisfactory. Nor is that speed “essential” for public safety; the biggest barrier to public safety broadband deployment is creation of an interoperable public safety network, which has nothing to do with USF subsidies. And the proposed speed is not subscribed to by a “substantial majority” of US households.  The most recent FCC statistics indicate that the fastest broadband download speed subscribed to by a “substantial majority” of US households is probably 768 kbps.

Definition of performance measures: Fifteen years after passage of the legislation that authorized the high cost universal service subsidies, the FCC has proposed to measure the program’s outcomes.  Actually, the FCC wants to measure intermediate outcomes like deployment, subscribership, and urban-rural rate comparability — not ultimate outcomes like expanded economic and social opportunities for people in rural areas.  But it’s a start …  provided that the FCC actually figures out how the subsidies have affected these intermediate outcomes, rather than just measuring trends and claiming the universal service subsidies caused any positive trends observed.  We have some suggestions on how to do this.