Universal Service/Network Democracy
Week Four (September 16 - September 22)
In the fourth week of the Universal Service/Network Democracy on-line
seminar, we will go over the following topics:
If you have not yet read the page on
Preliminaries to the Universal
Service/Network Democracy on-line seminar, please read it now.
The Preliminaries page contains information on the following items:
The seminar continued at the rapid pace set previous weeks.
There were 59 electronic mail messages from 33 different people.
These people were divided among the various participant groups as follows:
- Schools and Libraries: 15 people, 27 messages (46%)
- Universities: 4 people, 6 messages (10%)
- State and federal government: 5 people, 8 messages (14%)
- Business: 9 people, 18 messages (30%)
In addition to the seminar's e-mail-facilitated discussion a new
component was added last week. This involved an
which highlighted topics relating to the previous week's discussion
on the scope of Universal Service subsidies. The on-line survey
proved to be an effective mechanism for increasing the percentage
of seminar registrants who were able to make direct
contributions to the discussion each week. So far 89 people have
completed the survey, including 46 who had not previously participated
in the on-line discussion. If you have yet to complete the survey,
please do so now.
It takes just a few minutes to fill out, and it helps address
some of the important issues that we are trying to tackle in the
of the survey on the scope of Universal Service are now
available on-line. The on-line summary of results will be updated
periodically as more people complete the survey.
In addition to a numerical tabulation of the
results, we have also compiled the
comments that people entered on their survey forms. You will
find a number of insightful remarks among these comments.
Here is a brief overview of the survey results:
- 1. Purpose: How should we view the purpose of the Universal
Service Fund for schools and libraries? Is it to provide equity of
access to telecommunications services, or is it to establish a public
right of access to such services?
- Results were split, with nearly 2/3 defining the purpose as equity
and 1/3 defining it as a public right. Many commenters felt that
the question was ambiguous and suggested that Universal
Service should serve both of these goals.
My own interpretation of these phrases was that a "public right"
implies that all citizens should have access to the resource, while
"equity" implies that there should be no disparities of access.
Several of the commenters came up with better statements than this,
and I would welcome further discussion of this point during the
- 2. Educational Needs: In terms of the needs of teachers,
students and library patrons, what types of telecommunications services
are of the current greatest interest to schools and libraries?
- Almost everyone identified Internet Data Services as a major
need. Approximately 40% cited Voice and Video. One commenter
raised the issue of digital convergence, which is an important
enough topic to merit separate discussion.
- 3. Breadth vs. Depth: Should the range of services covered by
the Universal Service Fund be narrow, so that the magnitude of available
discounts can be large, or should the range of services be broad,
which would result either in smaller discounts or a larger Fund?
- The majority (60%) of the respondents favor a broad fund with
enough money to provide substantial discounts for all covered services.
- 4. Services to be covered: Which types of services should be
eligible for subsidy under the Universal Service Fund?
- Site Connectivity was mentioned by almost everyone. 70% listed
Upgrades of Telecommunications Capabilities. Both of these items are
items which are clearly eligible for Universal Service support under
the Telecommunications Act. 50% of the respondents also cited
Internal Wiring, Routers and Servers, and Technical Support. Since
these are not services in the traditional province of telecommunications
service providers, it may be more difficult to include them in Universal
Service support, but there is obviously a strong interest in finding
the funds for these essential items.
Please consult the
for a more complete picture.
Highlights of the
comments from the surveys are as follows:
- Clarification of Universal Service as an equity issue or a public right.
- Using Universal Service to stimulate competition.
- Digital convergence - the coming together of previously disparate
- Sources of Universal Service funding.
- Availability of "advanced" services to schools and libraries.
- Using Universal Service subsidies to leverage local funding.
- Cost as a barrier to access and equity.
- Removing barriers to public access to government (and other)
- Need of local school districts and libraries for assistance and
guidance in technology implementation.
These are all important points for us to consider. Many of them have
shown up in our previous discussions, but their repeated mention
serves to underscore their importance.
The principal topic for the third week's discussion had to do
with the allocation of Universal Service subsidies for
schools and libraries. This discussion was organized around
a set of questions that were posed in the material placed
on-line at the beginning of the week. Given the success of
the on-line survey for issues of scope we'll be extending
the discussion of allocation issues with another on-line survey
in the upcoming week. Hence I'll give only the briefest summary
of the responses received so far on last week's questions.
- Should there be cash grants or vouchers available directly to
schools or school districts?
- The majority of comments favor discounted services rather
than cash grants or vouchers. There is a fear that grants and vouchers
would be harder for schools and libraries to administer than discounted
services. Few people addressed the positive side of grants and
vouchers, which is that they might allow more flexibility than
- Should there be an "E-rate" (educational rate) defining
special discounts for schools and libraries?
- Most people interpreted this as an alternative to grants and
vouchers, and it received a number of positive comments. The
phrase "E-rate" refers to a specific proposal for free connectivity
for schools and libraries, something that gives many people pause,
since there is a fear of having groups subscribe to a free service
whether they need it or not. I would like to encourage further on this
- How should one define a bona fide request for telecommunications
services? What minimal justifications should a school, library or
school district have to offer in support of such a request?
- This question was raised because of language in the Telecommunications Act
which requires that requests from schools and libraries be certified as
bona fide. The majority of respondents favor leaving this
matter to local school districts and library systems, although there is
a recognition that many such groups may lack the information and
knowledge to make wise choices in this area. This is the other side
of the coin of the issues relating to technical support and staff
development that we have discussed previously.
- Should Universal Service subsidies extend to groups which provide
educational materials or support for educational organizations, such as
universities and colleges or community centers?
- This idea has received a lukewarm reaction in comments so far.
The majority oppose this as a dilution of the Universal Service
fund and an extension well beyond its intended scope.
A new on-line survey will allow for additional input on these issues
in the course of the present week.
In addition to the topics listed above, there were a number of other
threads of discussion which took place on-line. Of particular note
were the following:
- The relative merits of graphical user interfaces (GUI) vs. plain
text. While several people advocated limiting Universal Service
subsidies to plain text services, others pointed out that GUIs
enormously reduce training costs and extend the potential audience
for on-line services.
- Wireless technologies. Enthusiastic postings from advocates
of new wireless technologies were met with scepticism about the
effective reach of such technologies and the ease with which they
can be managed by most schools and libraries. Clearly this technology
offers much promise, but as with all technologies, it can't be
viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution.
- Free e-mail. There were several mentions of Internet
services which offset the cost of e-mail accounts through paid
advertisements. Services of this type don't really address the
infrastructure issues which are the province of the Telecommunications
Act. They can't scale to serve whole-school populations, and they
are inherently inefficient in the way they use telecommunications
infrastructure. Nonetheless they are a very attractive means of
introducing people to on-line services and could play a role in
initiating such activities in areas where there are not otherwise
- Telecommunications services for the homeless. Several people
discussed the practicality of providing such services through
schools and libraries.
- Job skills through the use of telecommunications. Several
people approached this important issues from different directions -
one having to do with the SCANS report and the other having to do
with how the availability of telecommunications services in schools
and libraries will produce a workforce better able to make use of
these services in an effective manner in the workplace.
I hope the preceding brief summary doesn't distort the positions
presented during the previous week's discussion. As always, you
should consult the original material
for the authoritative word on these issues.
The assignments for the third week were a logical extension of
previous assignments, namely to participate in the on-line discussion,
to provide materials for the library of on-line resources and to
complete the on-line survey. We have already discussed the surveys
in some detail and have summarized the on-line discussion. You
can look directly at the full text of the on-line
discussions and the many contributions
to the on-line library. We appreciate the effort that people have
been putting into the seminar and urge you to continue this work in
the next two weeks.
As in previous weeks, there were several new developments on the
technical front in the seminar.
As discussed above, the survey capability that was introduced
last week will be extended to provide surveys on other topics
of interest during the seminar. We have set things up so that
the analysis of these surveys
can be done automatically as people fill out the survey forms.
Availability of a survey on issues relating to the allocation
of Universal Service subsidies will be announced in an e-mail
message on September 16.
A second new development has to do with the extension of the
of on-line resources. Many new contributions were received during
the week, and these have all been linked into the Universal
Service/Network Democracy Web site.
We have been working with a list of four major topics:
- Scope. What services should be covered by the Universal Service
- Aggregation. How can schools and libraries share services
with each other and with other community groups
to maximize efficiency and effectiveness?
- Allocation. Who gets the subsidies and under what conditions?
- Integration. How will new discounts fit in with existing
We have covered questions of scope and allocation in
the two weeks just concluded. I propose to deal with the other
two issues in the next two weeks, linking them for the purpose
of efficiency to two other topics which I mentioned last week:
- Other Proceedings. The present seminar is focussed upon
Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act. Other sections of the
Act are also of importance for schools and libraries, and in some
cases there are separate proceedings under way for these other topics.
Some mention has already been made of the proceeding which deals with
wireless technologies. I would like to summarize these other
proceedings and try to indicate their relevance for schools and
- Competition. An important principle underlying the
Telecommunications Act of 1996 is the idea of enhanced competition.
We need to consider how Universal Service subsidies can be
structured so as to enhance the competitive environment. Many
examples exist which show how such an environment can benefit
schools and libraries, but it is not a given that true competition
will arise without planning and forethought.
We'll approach these topics as follows:
- Week Four: Aggregation and Competition. How can
schools and libraries share
services with each other and with other community groups
to maximize efficiency and effectiveness? And how can these activities
be structured so as to enhance competition?
- Week Five: Integration and Other Proceedings. How will
new discounts fit in
with existing programs? And what other proceedings at the federal and
state level should people in schools and libraries be following to
assure that there will be adequate coordination of the various
programs which impact telecommunications services for schools and
How can schools
and libraries share
services with each other and with other community groups? How can
these activities be structured so as to foster competition among
This week's major topic will be the question of how schools and
libraries can aggregate services for increased efficiency and
effectiveness. We'll try weaving in with this topic one of the
over-arching issues of the Telecommunications Act, namely the
goal of increased competition.
These two questions may strike some people as being contradictory,
but I think there are some important issues which can be exposed
by exploring the connection between these questions. Specifically,
there is the issue of how much clout schools and libraries and
their allies among community groups, local and state government
can exert to help shape the evolving architecture of regional
telecommunications infrastructure. There is a definite tension
between the shared needs of these groups and the tendencies of a
monopolistic industry. The promise of the Telecommunications Act
is a less monopolistic environment, and in such an environment
community groups and local and state governments should have a
stronger voice than in the past.
Insofar as public sector groups can begin to aggregate network
traffic, services and support, there will develop new collaborations
which can reinforce the abilities of these groups to make use of
new telecommunications services. Furthermore, as has been forcefully
stated in many messages in this seminar, few of these public sector
groups are capable of going it on their own. Hence the development
of shared regional infrastructure is a real necessity for them.
A number of questions come to mind in connection with this line
- What examples exist of effective community collaborations?
- Does the Telecommunications Act promote such collaborations
or endanger them? (I'm thinking of provisions such as the
prohibition of resale as a potential danger in this regard.)
- How can an enhanced competitive environment help schools and
libraries? Are there new services likely to result? Is dramatic
price competition likely to occur?
- What structures exist to facilitate needed community collaborations
in the development of telecommunications infrastructure? Is this
activity typically driven by school districts, municipal governments,
community groups, libraries or other organizations?
This week's assignments continue the pattern established last week:
- Continue to develop summaries of the Comments, Reply Comments
and Further Comments in the
On-line Repository. Send your summaries
so they can be linked into the Web site as part of the
- Post to the on-line discussion group on this week's topic - the
aggregation of services and support by schools and libraries and
the role of competition in this effort.
- Complete the
on-line survey on the allocation of Universal
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