In recent months, editorial and feature pages of publications around the nation have focused on the theme that Americans are in for a sour summer surprise: telephone rate increases. The reports uniformly finger elements of the nation’s universal service policy as somehow being the culprit, completely ignoring the real reasons behind the imminent rate increase.
Universal service is the cornerstone of our nation’s communications policy. It is a social compact embracing the ideal that all Americans, both urban and rural, are entitled to quality communications services at reasonable rates. So important is this national policy that the historic high-cost and low-income mission begun under the mandate of the 1934 Communications Act was specifically enshrined in clear, concise terms in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. At that time, Congress also expanded the policy, adding a secondary mandate ensuring that schools, libraries and rural health-care facilities could participate in the nationwide, integrated telecommunications network.
Regulators routinely have advanced the new schools, libraries and health-care mandate, with no regard to containing its costs, while neglecting the historic high-cost and low-income mission. The long-distance industry has begun assessing consumers with new line-item universal service and national access charges while failing to provide consumers with corresponding offsets in their long-distance rates. The media has whipped the debate to the frenzied point of agreeing with the more preposterous charges of the program’s critics, that it is somehow a tax, or that it is a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment.
Let’s face it, the nation long ago decided, and very recently underscored, that it wanted a state-of-the-art, national communications system-a sound rejection of the balkanized view that rural areas would be excluded because of the high costs associated with serving them. For regulators, the long-distance industry-and yes even the media and other critics-to now attempt to undermine, evade and/or otherwise malign this policy, or their responsibilities associated with it, is unconscionable and should be fully exposed.
With regard to the universal service policy’s historic high-cost and low-income mission, nothing has changed. There are no new costs being levied against the long-distance industry, which historically has been obligated to support this policy. In fact, the responsibility of the long-distance industry has been significantly lessened due to the conditions of the 1996 act, which requires that virtually all telecommunications carriers contribute to this program. And let’s not confuse the sound national policy of universal service with the controversial implementation of the schools and libraries programs.
So let the public be honestly and fully informed so that it may properly direct its ire when the sour summer surprise arrives. The misrepresentations and half-truths must be quashed and to this end, we must all be completely and totally committed.
Michael E. Brunner
Chief Executive Officer
National Telephone Cooperative Association