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WIRELESS SERVICES NOT SIGNIFICANT IN UNIVERSAL SERVICE PROGRAM

WASHINGTON-Wireless services still haven’t figured into the unserved, underserved, high-cost and rural area matrix in a significant manner when it comes to universal service.

Meeting at the Federal Communications Commission June 5, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service focused on how much it will cost to connect poor and rural subscribers to a communications network and how carriers will be reimbursed to do so.

Most panelists based their comments on current local exchange carriers and their existing ties to the Universal Service Fund; it is these carriers, in many instances, that have not built out the network to serve 100 percent of their populations, even though reimbursement funding has been available to do so.

Panelist Glenn Brown, U S West Inc.’s executive director of public policy, did not consider wireless technologies when he wrote his company’s comments regarding benchmark cost models, saying that he put “an arbitrary cutoff” on wireless- and satellite-based technologies. “They could go in the model now,” he added, “because the economics have changed.” Even wireless proponent Hatfield & Associates hasn’t included wireless in any of its modelings, saying “there aren’t enough systems off the shelf yet.”

Dennis Weller, a senior economist for GTE Corp., did open the door for wireless carriers to enter the local exchange marketplace, at least in unserved or underserved areas or in high-cost areas, by saying reimbursement funding “should go to any carrier willing to be a LEC or a carrier of last resort.” Weller advocates an auction mechanism to award remote or high-cost service areas to those who can provide service in a cost-effective manner. A competitive bidding environment, according to Weller, would reveal the true costs of building a network and providing service; and it would tap the provider most likely to adapt to changes in new technology, costs and service packaging.

Not true, countered Bob Schoonmaker, a consultant and vice president of GVNW Inc./Management, who has reservations regarding an auction scenario. Schoonmaker pointed out that the possibility of multiple carriers in non-rural areas makes auctions unnecessary, that states-and not auctions-have the authority to determine eligible carriers, and that a low-ball bidder would have no incentive to provide high-quality service.

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