The Future of Universal Service is Broadband

Charles Benton

On Tuesday, a House hearing will consider the future of communications in America. The question of the day is whether America's future communications system should be based on 19th century technology - the telephone - or on 21st century digital broadband. In determining how to modernize the multi-billion dollar annual Universal Service Fund (USF), created to bring telecommunications services to all Americans, policymakers must come to grips with the fact that the copper wire telephone system - once the foundation of our communications networks - is now holding us back. The future of telecommunications in America is access to high-speed Internet or broadband. Reform of the USF is essential to making that access a reality.

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet is holding a hearing titled, The Future of Universal Service: To Whom, By Whom, For What, and How Much? These are critical questions that deserve future-focused answers.

The future is broadband. High-speed Internet is, undoubtedly, the essential communications medium of the 21st century. With broadband, we can access e-mail, connect with friends, start a business, get news, watch a video, and even make a phone call. But, more importantly, broadband is now becoming increasingly essential for achieving fundamental, national policy goals - from improving education, extending health care, creating jobs, improving public safety and national security, boosting our economy, and reconnecting Americans with their democracy. To harness broadband's power and potential, what's needed is a new commitment to making this critical medium as universal as telephones are today. What's needed is a fundamental shift in the federal universal service program from supporting analog narrowband communications to supporting digital broadband communications.

To whom should broadband reach? Everyone. Since 1934, U.S. communications law has been rooted in making telephone service available and affordable throughout the country. Mission accomplished. Yet today - as broadband becomes more critical for everything from jobs, to education and even participation in modern campaigns - millions do not have access to affordable high-speed broadband - or any broadband choices at all. We have made great progress in extending broadband's reach, but, unfortunately, America faces a lingering broadband gap that is unlikely to be bridged by market forces alone. The universal service program, designed to extend communications into hard to reach areas, can play a critical role in bridging this broadband divide.

By whom should broadband be deployed? By any willing company. The goal of universal access to broadband can be achieved faster reach farther when we have competition between those who can build broadband infrastructure and provide services over those connections. DSL, cable, fiber and other broadband technology providers should be able to compete side-by-side to provide broadband at the designated speeds, at the most affordable price. The universal service support system should never limit carriers to obsolete or inefficient technology.

For what reason do we support broadband deployment? For a more competitive and better America. We're on the verge of a vast new broadband-driven digital transformation that promises to make life more livable, businesses more productive, and jobs more plentiful. Broadband will soon be an indispensable communication technology affecting the way we learn, the way we work, and the way we communicate. However, at the dawn of this Digital Age, those who could benefit the most from this economically empowering technology are also those most likely to be left without access because of where they live or how much money they make. Broadband is vital to personal success and essential for the country's future economic success.

How much should we spend on broadband deployment? No more than we're spending now. Ubiquitously available broadband could unleash an estimated $500 billion in economic growth, create more than 1.2 million high-wage jobs, restore America's global competitiveness, boost business productivity - which is essential to raising standards of living for all families in America - and allow small businesses to reach global markets. But we don't have to fleece consumers or raid the Treasury to pay for it. We simply have to transition the funds that currently support high-cost, narrowband traditional phone systems and start using those funds to support modern, digital broadband networks.

The best news is that the Federal Communications Commission already has the tools it needs to make ubiquitous, affordable broadband a reality. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress charged the FCC with encouraging the deployment of broadband on a reasonable and timely basis to all Americans and with updating its universal service support program from time to time as technologies advance. Now is one of those times. With the right Congressional support, the FCC has within its grasp a chance to change not just the lives of this generation, but also the next.

Its time to transition the universal service program to broadband and set a national goal of making broadband Internet service available and affordable to all Americans. Let's do it.

Additional Resources from the Benton Foundation:

Building Broadband Into Universal Service

Universal Affordable Broadband for All Americans

Broadband Benefits

By Charles Benton.