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Farm Team comes out against primary-line restriction

WASHINGTON-Members of the United States Senate, many of them alumni of the 1996 Farm Team, are preparing a letter to be sent to the Federal Communications Commission urging it to reject a recommendation to restrict universal-service subsidies to primary lines.

“Imposing a primary-line restriction whereby neither second lines nor cell phones are included for support runs wholly counter to the principle of advancing affordable and advanced telecommunications,” reads a draft of the letter. “Second lines and cell phones are readily available for urban residential and business customers. Yet, under a primary-line restriction, rural customers would have the right only to one phone line at a reasonable cost comparable to urban areas, and their second lines could be charged exorbitant rates. This puts rural customers at a distinct disadvantage to their urban counterparts.”

Drafts of the letter were distributed on Tuesday morning to members of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association who were scheduled to meet with various members of the Senate to push for universal-service reform that does not include a primary-line restriction.

The letter is being spearheaded by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairman of the Senate communications subcommittee, and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

“We are going to try to get a pretty robust group of people because the joint board has made a terrible mistake in recommending that universal-service support be restricted to one primary line. That would consign much of rural America to an economic future of great difficulty,” Dorgan told RCR Wireless News following his NTCA appearance. “Our hope is to communicate a very strong message to the FCC-don’t do this. This would be very counter-productive to all that we have worked for.”

Other signatories currently include Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas).

Under the primary-line restriction, one carrier could only receive support for one household instead of the current system where carriers receive support based on how many lines are serviced. This system has allowed wireless carriers to receive support for serving rural customers even if the customer has not cut the cord.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed universal-service support to become portable so that the carrier that is serving the customer received the support for serving that customer.

In an effort to protect the growth of the universal-service fund, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service last month recommended that support be limited to one primary line. The FCC has one year to act on the recommendation but Daniel Mitchell, NTCA senior regulatory counsel, told attendees on Monday that three of the five FCC members were at best lukewarm to the idea.

“We have three FCC commissioners who will be voting on the primary-line restrictions and none of them seem to be hard-and-fast in support of the primary-line restrictions,” said Daniel Mitchell, senior regulatory counsel for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who appeared after Mitchell at the conference, said he strongly opposes the primary-line restriction. “For myself, I hope the primary-line restriction is dead on arrival,” said Adelstein.

Rural incumbent local exchange carriers have been fighting against wireless carriers for universal-service support as both the amount of subsidies and number of carriers receiving support has increased. There is a fear that the high-cost universal-service fund will go bankrupt because this is occurring at a time when long-distance revenues are decreasing.

The FCC asked the joint board-made up of both state and federal regulators and a consumer advocate-to make recommendations on how the universal-service fund can be saved. The second-line controversy is not new. As the FCC developed the universal-service rules in the wake of the passage of the telecom act, there was a great debate about whether support should be given for second lines. It was finally decided that support should be granted for additional lines in an effort to spur the take rate on broadband services. The theory was if a rural customer had access to dial-up service then they would eventually want broadband.

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