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FACT Working Group

The Future of American Communications (FACT) Working Group, consisting of 16 scholars from 11 leading American universities working under the auspices of the Institute for Information Policy in the College of Communications at Penn State, has produced a volume titled “… And Communications for All: A Policy Agenda for a New Administration.”

The book outlines a new vision for communications policy in America and the practical steps needed to achieve it. The book of recommendations, published by Lexington Books and launched on Jan. 26, 2009, at the New America Foundation, was funded by the Media Democracy Fund.

A future universal service policy can help prepare the United States for the competitive challenges that lay ahead. A special challenge lies with regard to access in rural regions, in which roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population lives.  Now that President Obama’s priorities include expanding broadband throughout the country, we need to insure that all Americans have access not only to high speed networks but also to the expertise to use new technologies.

An alternative vision of universal service and its contribution to rural populations must focus on cultivating the ability of people to improve their lives—with the types of improvements to be determined by the people themselves.  Current data show that only 39% of rural households have high speed Internet, that 20 million Americans do not have access to a single high speed Internet provider, and that many others simply cannot afford it.  A renewed focus on self-determination in the communications/telecommunications environment is essential, and this is more viable with the onset of social networks and new types of telecommunications services. Public policies that acknowledge not just rural parity with urban regions, but also self-determination, could make telecommunications more meaningful to life in rural regions.
New ways to use network capabilities for improved safety, health and education services, and business opportunities should be part of a national telecommunications policy.

The current universal service program delivers subsidies to telecommunications providers to help cover the higher costs endemic to serving rural regions, and, through its E-rate program, it helps schools and libraries and rural medical facilities maintain Internet services.  However, it is hindered by outdated bases for collecting and distributing revenues, and it has not worked effectively to encourage the benefits competition can bring.
While universal service requires reform, the core principles driving investment in a broadband infrastructure include:

  • Be technology neutral: Use whichever technologies are (or become) appropriate (e.g. fixed line, wireless, WiMax, cable, fiber or other means);
  • Foster competition by supporting a variety of service providers; reverse auctions or competitive subsidy bids may be effective in bringing broadband to new territories quickly;
  • Use subsidies and loan guarantees where necessary to create incentives for innovation, efficiency, and consumer choice.
  • Insuring that the expenditure and use of funds for broadband are transparent.

Current universal service program are inadequate to meet the needs of rural America.  Above all, we need to adopt a national broadband policy that is capable of guaranteeing sustained investment in telecommunications infrastructure in all geographic regions.  Implementing the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service’s Broadband Infrastructure Fund specifically for unserved areas should be a priority (estimated to cost $15 billion over three years). Our national policy needs to coordinate meaningfully with state policies.

Specific new policy initiatives for redressing rural broadband problems beyond extending the network itself should:

  1. Establish grants for Internet training. The target populations could be not only individual users but also small businesses. Technological literacy is as fundamental as ‘reading’ literacy.  Grants should go to various entities, including NGOs and nonprofits, towns, counties, colleges and local government that are on the front lines of delivering services.
  2. Funds should be used to enhance projects undertaken by communities that are designed to extend their telecommunications capabilities and applications.
  3. Invest in community college-based Internet applications capabilities classes for individuals and small businesses and create incentives for colleges that enroll small business owners, with some outcome-based measure being the trigger for an incentive “subsidy” or payment.
  4. Create “rural leadership academies” that select aspiring or actual rural leaders for training not only in using the Internet but also in running computer education clinics or courses, in the “nuts and bolts” of broadband infrastructure, and in resource sharing across institutions.

The e-rate program has been invaluable for our cash-strapped public schools, and for poorer inner city and rural schools, it may be the only way Internet access has been affordable.

  1.  Continue the USF programs for schools, libraries and rural health care (E-Rate) as a permanent component of universal service.
  2.  Continue the following E-Rate policies: Fund connectivity and related facilities; maintain discounts based on poverty and rurality; Maintain competitive bidding process for vendors.
  3.  Keep responsibility in the FCC, but establish advisory committees with members from other government agencies, professional organizations, and consumer groups.
  4.  Require a triennial review of FCC and USAC procedures to improve efficiency,    effectiveness and transparency of funds disbursement.
  5.  Require a small percentage of E-Rate funds be used for outreach to increase awareness of the programs and for evaluation to monitor program utilization and assess impacts of USF support.

There is negligible cost to the streamlining of universal service policies. However, adopting a comprehensive policy promoting smart networks with access in rural communities may require up to millions of dollars in staged investments.  One estimate, for example, recommends the country spend $44 billion in 2009 alone on broadband initiatives.  In the long term, this investment will bring increased economic opportunities.

Benton Foundation has many resources addressing broadband
Rural Policy Institute for comprehensive rural policy background and information
Free Press 


  • Rural Broadband: Sharon Strover, Ph.D., University of Texas (
  • Universal Service: Krishna Jayakar, Ph.D. Penn State University (
  • E-Rate: Heather E. Hudson, Ph.D., University of San Francisco (
  • Municipal broadband: Andrea H. Tapia, Penn State University (
  • Amit M. Schejter, Ph.D., Group Director, Penn State University ( )