For more than 100 years, the United States has used a variety of policy tools to encourage and ensure ubiquitous, affordable basic communications service. Universal and accessible communications services have been the foundation upon which our economy, personal communications, and civic participation depend. The laws and rules used to achieve universal service, however, have evolved with new technologies and markets and now, as the network is in the midst of several new technology transitions, the question of how to achieve and measure universal service arises again.
This article examines the basic question of what the “basic service” is in today’s world. For decades basic voice service provider offer the traditional copper network has been treated as the basic universal service. Voice service certainly continues to be critical to business, personal, and emergency communications, but the time has now come to also acknowledge that broadband Internet access service is itself a basic service. The days of treating broadband access as a luxury are gone, and our policies should reflect that. With that in mind, this article considers a variety of metrics by which policymakers should evaluate broadband and voice services, to determine whether new services being offered are a true step forward for everyone in the technology transitions.
Additionally, this article reviews potential tools that policymakers could use to achieve universal, affordable broadband and voice service. In the past, Congress and the FCC have used tools like carrier of last resort policies, Universal Service Fund programs, and voluntary efforts by companies to increase network build-out and access. At this early stage policymakers should seriously consider all available options to determine what approaches work best for new technologies.
The development of new voice and broadband access services hold great potential, but they will only live up to that potential if the United States can fulfill its promise to ensure everyone has a meaningful chance to the use the networks we have all contributed to. There are still many details to work out, but policymakers should not delay in updating universal service policies to continue to serve the public throughout and after technology transitions.