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AppRising delivers insight into new broadband applications, exploring their impact on networks and their implications for public policy.

AppRising is written by Geoff Daily, who covers broadband applications and the business of online video. Based in Washington, DC, Geoff regularly advises applications developers, network operators, community leaders, and public officials on how to maximize adoption and use of the Internet.

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November 30, 2007 9:54 AM

USF Starts Heading in Right Direction

Long reviled as a questionable use of taxpayer dollars, the universal service fund (USF) now seems on the verge of some significant changes to the ways it doles out money.

First and foremost, there's the recommendation by the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service to expand the services supported by the USF to include high speed broadband.

I think it's a crime to have any new telephone-only lines put into the ground or strung over the air, especially when you consider that by putting in broadband you can get telephone service!

Unfortunately this is only a recommendation at this point, and there is some question about how robust support is for this as the Joint Board has so far only called for $300 million to subsidize rural broadband, which is a big number but not big enough to solve the whole problem.

The second push is to refocus the USF on subsidizing broadband in unserved areas instead of the broader and more amorphous under-served markets.

This is such a no-brainer to me it's ridiculous. "Universal service" implies making sure everyone can get service. So shouldn't the focus of the USF be on making sure everyone has access to broadband before worrying about making sure everyone has access to more than one provider?

If we allow a program like this to get distracted worrying about encouraging competition, we then lose sight of the ultimate goal: getting everyone onto the network.

The third big potential shift is splitting the USF into three categories: wireline, wireless, and providers of last resort.

In the current model, wireless and wireline are lumped together, which muddles the fact that ultimately what we want is wireless and wireline connectivity, not either/or but both. Additionally, moving in this direction helps put further emphasis on the importance of wireline networks, which have sometimes been pushed into the background because of excitement over the possibility of a wireless world.

Deploying wireline networks may be expensive, complicated, and time-consuming, but they're also incredibly important to the future of bandwidth-intensive broadband applications.

I'm pretty sure none of these three aspects of change have officially been implemented yet, and there's undoubtedly some areas that need further fleshing out and exploration to ensure the billions in USF subsidies are spent wisely, but at the very least it's encouraging to hear the news laid out above that perhaps we're finally starting to steer this aspect of the Great Broadband Debate in the right direction.


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