Universal Service/Network Democracy
Week One (August 26 - September 1)
Discussions in the first week of the Universal Service/Network Democracy
on-line seminar will deal with the following topics:
The sections which follow contain information on these subjects
and suggestions on how seminar participants can work together to develop
these topics and help provide useful input to the Federal Communications
Commission as it works to implement the Telecommunications Act.
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 Universal Service/Network Democracy on-line seminar deals with
the provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996
which provide possible support for the telecommunications needs of schools and
libraries. The seminar brings together teachers and librarians with
direct experience in the educational applications of telecommunications,
people associated with the businesses who provide telecommunications
services and government staff working in the areas of education and
telecommunications. Through the seminar it may be possible to shape
the implementation of
those provisions of the Act which affect schools and libraries in such a
way as to maximize the educational benefits of the new law.
There are three broad areas that will be covered in the seminar:
Seminar participants bring expertise relevant to all these areas, and
the goal of our on-line discussions will be to share this expertise.
- Content of the Telecommunications Act
- Procedures for implementing the Act
- Telecommunications needs of schools and libraries
The information given on this Web page is meant to provide a framework
for further discussion on-line. Through the on-line discussion we will
be able to sharpen our focus and cover in a adequate manner the broad
set of issues which underly this debate.
If we attempt to reduce a very complex topic to a few sentences,
we could describe the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as having
the following two major features:
In essence, the competitive and Universal Service aspects of the law
attempt to strike a balance between the desire to provide a free market
economy for telecommunications services while preserving some notion of
equity or universal access to these services.
When the Telecommunications Act was signed into law earlier this year,
it set in motion a series of activities to implement the Act through the
development of a set of rules. The
activities is maintained at the Federal Communication Commission's
Web site. A
summary of the dates relevant for the present discussion is as follows:
The Act attempts to establish an environment in which competition among
various telecommunications providers is maximized.
- Universal Service.
Previous telecommunications legislation (dating back to 1934) defined a
concept of Universal Service, which provided subsidies to enable rural
telephone customers to be supplied with basic telephone service. The
new Act extends this concept to include the following areas:
- Basic telephone service. This is a continuation of
prior coverage, although the possibility exists to extend
this coverage to include more features than were previously
regarded as "basic".
- Schools, libraries and rural health care providers. There
is a stipulation that these groups should receive subsidized
access to telecommunications services, with specific mention
of access from every school classroom.
- February 8, 1996: Enactment of the
- The Act involves many more issues than Universal Service. We will
touch on some of them in the seminar, but in the timetable which follows
we list only those dates which realate directly to Universal Service
provisions for schools and libraries.
- March, 1996: Appointment of the Federal/State Joint Board.
- This Board is charged with making recommendations to the FCC on the
content of its rule for Universal Service.
- March 8, 1996: Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM).
- This notice provided a running commentary on the Telecommunications
Act with specific questions on items that require clarification for the
FCC to develop its rules on Universal Service.
- April 12, 1996: Public Comments to NPRM are due.
- Public Comments, limited to 25 pages in length, could be submitted
by any parties interested in participating in the rule making process.
Traditionally such Comments have been available at the FCC's reference
room in Washington. Through the efforts of Information Renaissance,
this material is now available on-line.
- May 8, 1996: Reply Comments
to NPRM are due.
- Public Reply Comments, issued in response to the original Comments
received by the FCC, were to be filed by this date.
This material is also available
- July 3, 1996: Request for
- The FCC published a list of 72 specific questions relating to areas
of the Universal Service discussion which had not been adequately
addressed by previous respondents.
- August 2, 1996: Further Comments are due.
- This material is currently being processed by Information
Renaissance and will be made available on-line during the next week.
- November 8, 1996: Report of the Joint Board to the FCC is due.
- At this point the FCC will be able to begin drafting of its rules to
implement the Universal Service provisions of the Telecommunications
Act. There will follow another round of Comments and Reply Comments,
which will be of crucial importance in shaping the final rules.
- May 8, 1997: FCC shall implement recommendations of the Joint
As you can see, the present seminar is placed at a critical time relative
to the activities of the Joint Board. Although the seminar is taking
place too late for participants who have not already done so to be able
to file formal Comments, Reply Comments or Further Comments. There
remain, however, many avenues through which the public can communicate
with FCC staff. These include:
Traditionally, the Universal Service Fund has existed to help equalize
the charges for telecommunications services experienced by customers in
different regions of the country. Through this fund, customers in
regions with intrinsically high costs, such as rural areas, have their
telecommunications services subsidized by the Fund. The Fund is
circular in nature, in that the same telecommunications providers will
typically contribute to the fund and draw from the fund.
- Informal Comments.
- These can be sent to the FCC by e-mail or post.
- Ex Parte Presentations.
- You can request an appointment with FCC staff to present your views
in person, or you can submit material for inclusion in the Universal
- Participation in this seminar.
- The entire proceedings on this on-line seminar will be filed by
Information Renaissance as an ex parte presentation to the FCC.
Hence all of your remarks in this seminar will find their way into the
official record. Equally importantly, both FCC staff and
representatives of organizations which have been participating in the
rule making process will be participating in this seminar. This makes
the seminar an easy entree into the process.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandates that the concept of
Universal Service should be extended to provide support for the
telecommunications needs of schools and libraries. A
brief summary of the provisions
of Section 254 of the Telecom Act has been provided by one of our
seminar participants. This summary encapuslates some of the language of
the Act and some of the procedures by which these provisions of the Act
are to be implemented.
There has been an enormous amount of material submitted to the FCC as
part of the Universal Service discussion. While it is almost impossible
for any single person to read through al 15,000 pages of these
submissions, the Universal Service/Network Democracy has hundreds of
participants who can divide this task, making it a practical effort for
us to approach.
Although the total volume of submissions on this topic has been very
large, it's important to note that the provisions for schools and
libraries represent only a small fraction of the topics under
discussion. Hence there is a need to dig out those portions of the
material submitted to the FCC which are actually relevant to the needs
of schools and libraries. Here, too, it's useful to have many people
available to share the task. If we can distill the information
submitted to the FCC into more manageable chunks, we will be able to
share the results and use this information more effectively.
With this in mind, I would like to propose the following
assignment to all seminar participants:
- Pick Comments, Reply Comments or Further Comments that have been
submitted by groups which relate most directly to your concerns. You
can make your choice based upon geography (by picking a service provider
in your region), association (by picking an organization of which you
are a member) and randomly. An index
of available material is accessible at this site.
- Read the items you have chosen with an eye toward their
applicability to the needs of schools and libraries.
- Prepare a brief summary of what you have read and send it to
for inclusion in the Universal Service/Network Democracy Web site.
There is a broad range of topics which we can choose to explore in the
upcoming five weeks. Given the interactive nature of the medium in
which we are working, I prefer not to fix a rigid syllabus for the
seminar in advance. Rather, I would like to let the participants help
select which topics we will cover in the next few weeks. Hence I
am making the following assignment:
- Send a message to the seminar,
with your suggestions of which topics to cover.
As an example of possible topics, I have put together the following
list. This reflects my own interests, and topics which others have
pointed out as ones that are important to consider. If your suggestion
simply endorses some of these points, that's fine, but feel free to add
whatever topics you feel are most important for us to take up.
If you are still looking for ideas, another good place to look is the
FCC's Request for Further Comments,
which contains 21 questions directly related to schools, libraries
and health care providers.
- Scope of Universal Service subsidies for schools and libraries
- Should they simply cover connectivity to the buildings, or should
they include other aspects of telecommunications services?
Specifically, should they cover such items as in-house Local Area
Networks, user devices or training?
- What already exists?
- Are there already special arrangements that schools and libraries
have made with telecommunications providers in their areas which make it
easier for schools and libraries to acquire needed telecommunications
services? These could be discounts, bulk purchases, give-aways or other
subsidies. It's important that new subsidies not be set up in such a
way as accidentally to eliminate existing mechanisms that might serve
schools and libraries better than the new subsidies. Alternatively, one
might look to existing mechanisms which work well and should be included
in the new FCC rules.
- Present approaches to low-cost connectivity
- Independent of any special discounts, subsidies or gifts, many
school districts and library systems have found clever ways to gain
access to advanced telecommunications services at low cost. By sharing
this information, we will enable others to make use of it, and we will
ensure that the underlying mechanisms will be included in new FCC rules.
Otherwise there is a danger that new rules might undermine some of the
mechanisms that have been used effectively in the past.
- Flat rate versus metered pricing
- It is my impression that Internet connectivity depends upon flat
rate (untimed) pricing of the network connection. Is this true?
To what extent is flat rate pricing currently available?
- One facet of the sort of competition that the Telecommunications Act
of 1996 seeks to promote is the unbundling of various telecommunications
services. This allows purchasers of these services to look for the best
provider in each category of service. To what extent is unbundling
essential for schools and libraries? To what extent is it currently
- How should the subsidies be allocated?
- Commenters on the NPRM have suggested a number of alternatives for
dispensing funds from the Universal Service Fund for schools and
libraries. These include discounts administered by the
telecommunications carriers, cash grants or vouchers to individual
schools or school districts, and block grants to states. Which is these
mechanisms is likely to be the most efficient and the most effective?
- What constitutes a bona fide request?
- The NPRM and the Request for Further Comments raise the issue
of what should constitute a bona fide for telecommunications
services that should be eligible for a Universal Service subsidy.
There exist a wide range of recommendations on this point - from
requiring school districts to receive state approval for a technology
plan which incorporates the requested services to simply having
the request submitted by the school district's technology manager.
This will be an important issue in the practical implementation
of a Universal Service subsidy.
- Advanced services for schools and libraries
- An important part of the Telecommunications is contained in Section
706, which deals with the provision of "advanced services." This is a
plausible mechanism for ensuring that schools and libraries will
continue to be provided with telecommunications services comparable with
those available to the business community and other institutional
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