‘Lifeline’ for Broadband May Become Reality

Rhett Pardon
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Federal regulators may soon make broadband available at half the cost of basic DSL or cable modem service for low-income and rural customers.

In a stunning announcement at the annual U.S. Telecom conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission board member Kathleen Abernathy said that broadband deployments may qualify for support from the universal service fund (USF), which was originally designed to keep the price of basic telephone service affordable throughout the country through “lifeline” programs.

Abernathy said that existing federal law “lends itself to being capable of sustaining broadband. So at a certain point, broadband would qualify for USF support.”

With a universal “lifeline” program set in place, broadband use in the United States could nearly double, experts say.

More than 7.4 million customers signed up last year for broadband services, bringing the total subscribers to nearly 25 million, according to market tracker Leichtman Research Group of Durham, N.H.

The United States currently ranks 11th among major countries in broadband penetration, according to an FCC report released last month.

Abernathy was joined at the conference with commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Kevin Martin, along with Michael Gallagher, director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Gallagher said his agency next year will launch a push into universal service fund eligibility for broadband, on top of the scrutiny that Congress and the FCC already are giving to the universal service system, which was mandated by 1996 federal legislation.

The FCC board members said the Bush administration is actively exploring ways to foster the development of broadband over power lines (BPL) as part of the president’s call for universal broadband availability by 2007.

Meanwhile, the FCC on Thursday adopted rules to facilitate deployment of BPL by addressing potential interference issues.

The FCC issued rules to avoid interference with public safety providers and licensed radio users. BPL will be excluded from some frequency bands and providers must notify safety authorities prior to deployment, according to the rules.

The rules address concerns about a technology which could help expand broadband to some rural areas and inner cities that aren't wired.