With $2b Decrease to Revenue Base in 2 Years, “The USF is Being Starved”
When you glance at the National Broadband Plan action item website, you will see that it is reportedly at the 80% completion mark as the plan nears its 2 year anniversary. Then, look at the section called “Accelerate Universal Broadband Access and Adoption”—this is where all the “good stuff” on USF/ICC lives—and you will see that the FCC’s goals have largely been achieved. Except for one: the elusive USF Contributions NPRM. According to the action item agenda, “To stabilize support mechanisms for universal service programs, in Q4 2010 propose rules to reform the process for collecting contributions to the USF.” Well, here we are a year after this objective should have been achieved and still no progress on USF contributions reform…and NTCA is not letting the FCC forget about it, as evidenced by a January 9, 2012 Ex Parte meeting with FCC staff.
NTCA discussed with FCC staff “prompt and effective reform of the contributions mechanism that enables the federal universal service fund.” NTCA argued for a revenue-based contributions mechanisms that “is technology neutral and best captures the value that consumers place on competing services;” “reflects the balance that consumers strike between different service offerings and the evolution of consumer preference;” is the “most equitable means of sharing responsibility;” and “can be implemented quickly with little burden to providers or the industry.” NTCA further argues that a revenue-based mechanism would be stabilizing and not overly complex, unlike a mechanism based on numbers or connections.
NTCA believes that the FCC has ample authority to extend the contributions base. One of the most convincing arguments was that the FCC has obviously made it a key mission to reform USF for the broadband era, so it logically follows that contributions should also be broadband-centric. NTCA explains, “Given that the Commission has indicated that retooling the USF program to support broadband-capable networks is among the most significant policy priorities, it would be both self-defeating and ironically anomalous for the Commission to build a broadband-focused fund of tomorrow on a foundation comprised solely of legacy services that fewer and fewer customers are buying.”
“Fewer and fewer” is certainly no exaggeration—if the USF contribution base is kept as it is, there literally won’t be anyone to keep it afloat in the coming years. NTCA estimates that “Over the past 2 years, assessable Telecommunications Revenues declined by $2 billion.” Just looking ahead three years, JSI Capital Advisors has projected that total wired access lines will decline from 86.49 in 2012 to 56.55m in 2015; meanwhile broadband connections will increase from 102.30m in 2012 to 115.48m in 2015 (The ILEC Advisor: Communications Industry Forecast 2011-2020: ILEC and CLEC Access Lines; Communications Industry Forecast 2011-2020: Broadband Connections and Market Share). So… why hasn’t the FCC broadened the contribution base to include broadband connections yet?
Much of the fault likely lies in the challenge of deciding exactly who should contribute, and how much. NTCA recommends a revenue-based methodology, and suggests that the contributions base should be broadened to include non-interconnected VoIP revenue, fixed and mobile broadband revenues (a $49b base in 2012), and texting revenue (a $20b base in 2012). NTCA argues, “Non-interconnected VoIP and texting cannot function without supported networks, and should thus contribute.” Furthermore, “texting is increasingly a substitute for voice calls.” According to NTCA, including broadband and texting revenues in the contributions base could likely cut the steadily-increasing contributions factor in half. Fixing the supply side of USF is crucial, and NTCA stresses that “The shrinking Contributions Base must be fixed or all of Universal Service is at risk.”
So you include voice lines, broadband lines, all VoIP and texting in the contributions base—is that it? Probably not, according to NTCA, but the FCC should not hesitate to implement initial reforms before they decide who else should contribute. NTCA urges the FCC to study “how to address business models that rely heavily upon driving traffic from others to specific websites or web-based enterprises.”
Determining contributions for web-based businesses that “place substantial burdens on networks” and probably wouldn’t exist if not for the networks they utilize is definitely a murky area, but as NTCA suggests, this could be a longer-term goal. How would the FCC begin to determine which web-based businesses should pay into USF? Would it be based on traffic, revenue, bandwidth utilization, or something else? With the lines between service provider and content provider becoming increasingly blurry (Google being the prime example), how will the FCC apply a new methodology for companies that fall into different categories? One can expect content providers to cry foul that the FCC is attempting to stifle innovation by imposing fees in this realm, but if it weren’t for the networks, these businesses would not exist. They certainly wouldn’t be generating billions in revenue, or contributing massive strain on broadband networks, thus requiring service providers to continually invest in upgrading their facilities…
The debate over contributions reform is likely to heat up in the coming months, and it will be very interesting to see what the FCC—and the industry—comes up with for new methodologies and solutions to address the rapidly shrinking contributions base. What do you think should happen…and what do you think will happen?
NTCA’s Ex Parte filing is available here.