Senate Once Again Ponders Internet Tax

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Community met yesterday to talk about the possibility of extending the Universal Service Fund (USF), the 1996 tax on telephone services, to Internet services.

While no specific numbers were discussed, any extension of the USF would mean increased costs to consumers.

Currently, all phone companies, including mobile and long-distance providers, are required to pay into the fund, originally designed to keep the price of basic telephone service affordable throughout the country by subsidizing phone services in rural areas.

The companies cover the expense by passing it onto customers. Accordingly, Internet companies would likely also pay for their contributions by tacking on additional user fees.

The idea of making broadband providers also contribute to the fund is backed mainly by lawmakers from rural states, including Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Stevens said during the hearing that without the USF, Alaska residents would have to pay up to $200 per month just to get a dial tone.

When asked by reporters after the hearing exactly what types of companies should have to pay into the USF, Stevens cast a wide cloth that included any company that “[transmits] knowledge from one person to another.”

He elaborated, “I believe fax is a communication, I think email is a communication, and I do believe they all should contribute.”

In 2005, the Senate mulled the possibility of extending the century-old federal excise tax on telephone services to the Internet, with opponents ultimately convincing proponents that such a measure would not gain enough votes to pass.

Last month, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., introduced legislation that would require VoIP providers to pay into the USF, but was clear to point out that he felt contributions should be limited only to broadband voice service.

Legislators in the House also have promised a bill that would extend the USF to Internet services, but rather than funds going to subsidize phone service, they would be used to bring broadband services to remote areas.

Some senators have expressed fear that, while the stated goal is admirable, they doubt its execution would produce the desired results. Recent government audits of the program’s administration hint at widespread mismanagement of funds.

Critics point out that deployment of USF funds is not handled by the federal government, but by nonprofit corporation called USAC whose board members are mostly telecommunications industry executives.

Also, according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report, broadband service is moving into rural areas without government assistance.