Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai yesterday sent a letter to the chief executive officer of the Universal Service Administrative Company, the not-for-profit entity designated by the Commission to administer the universal service program. In the letter, Mr. Pai questions apparent waste in the Lifeline program arising from certain households receiving more than one Lifeline subsidized service and the application of exceptions used to to allow additional members of household to qualify for a subsidy.
USAC administers four programs: high-cost and low-income; rural health care; Lifeline; and schools and libraries. Universal service is premised on the principle that all Americans should have access to a baseline of telecommunications services. These principles were recently expanded by the Commission to include high-speed internet access.
To meet these goals, a federal universal service fund has been established where telecommunications providers and voice-over-the-internet service providers make contributions to the fund and telecommunications companies may apply to receive reimbursement of the expenses involved in meeting universal service goals. According to USAC, in 2014, $7.9 billion in funding were disbursed from the fund to telecommunications providers.
My bird’s eye view of the extension of Lifeline to mobile broadband here in Atlanta tells me that mobile carriers are focusing on lower income neighborhoods. Here in the West End sector of Atlanta there appears to be a table and tent pushing free phones on every other corner. Assurance Wireless, a subsidiary of Virgin Mobile is pretty busy pushing its Lifeline wireless services here. Fraud and waste as discussed above has been a big issue with policymakers. Rather than a government program where a private company is being required to act as a social welfare agency determining whether a consumer is eligible for a government aid program and rather than telling households how many phones they should be limited to having, why not let entrepreneurs and private capital identify and sell to underserved markets for cell phones.
The technology is there where cell phones, capable of accessing the internet, can be provided to lower income consumers at prices a fraction of what it costs to get an iPhone. Technology continues to innovate where low cost phones can be provided. For example, Verizon offers smartphones at retail prices ranging from $94 to $120. Plop down the cash and for the monthly data plan fee a consumer can make calls or surf the internet.
If private capital sees returns from investing in a company that can provide handsets and data plans to low income households, private capital will make the investment. The problem is the premise that everyone should have access to the internet via mobile broadband. That premise is faulty because it assumes a value to the consumer and forces that value into Commission rule. Yes, commerce benefits from the deployment of a telecommunications infrastructure that facilitates the flow of data, knowledge, and information, but those providing and extracting this value should be ready to compensate the providers of services or invest in its deployment out of their own pockets or with funds raised in the capital or credit markets.
Yes, telecommunications networks may increase in value with an increase in end-users accessing it, but spreading the cost of facilitating access by one consumer who probably brings no value communications wise to other consumers is an externality that I view as negative. Not only will we see fraud in the current government-based universal service, but a taking of consumer property via the taxes paid by consumers to support universal service.