On your monthly phone bill, you pay a fee, in the Federal Communications Commission’s words, “to make phone service affordable and available to all Americans, including consumers with low incomes, those living in areas where the costs of providing telephone service is high, [and] schools and libraries and rural health care providers.”
It’s called the Universal Service Fund surcharge, and it’s likely that your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents paid this fee every month too. “Because telephones provide a vital link to emergency services, to government services and to surrounding communities, it has been our nation’s policy to promote telephone service to all households since this service began in the 1930s,” the FCC reports on its website.
And yet, eight decades later, many rural areas – particularly those in Indian Country — still have inadequate phone service and inadequate access to current cellular and broadband technology. People who have been working to improve access say inadequate service is a threat to public safety and is holding back economic development.
“While we are blessed to be between the ocean and the mountains in a semi-remote land of woodlands, rivers, lakes and one of the few remaining rain forests, these blessings do contribute to emergency conditions on occasion, such as extreme storms, seawater encroachment, mudslides, road washouts, tsunami and forest fire danger,” Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp said in an interview with ICT in 2015.
“More complete cell and Land Remote Radio coverage would enable improved communication during these emergencies. We still have dead spots for both cell and [Land Mobile Radio] on and off the reservation, which we are working to alleviate.”
Naomi Jacobson, then-chairwoman of the Quileute Nation, said in a 2015 interview with ICT, “There have been a few times throughout this year that our cell services have been down, with no explanation, even with the most beautiful clear skies. We are all well aware that technology will never be perfect. However, in the event of a disaster such as a tsunami, with the Quileute Tribal School location at sea level, we cannot afford for any lapse in connectivity.”
The problem extends beyond Quinault and Quileute homelands on the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula.
In 2014, studies led by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Center and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians found:
- “Due to small populations, large telecommunications companies do not find it profitable to invest in infrastructure that would provide full cell and Internet coverage.”
- “Lack of access to broadband infrastructure and basic broadband technology in rural regions creates educational, vocational and civic inequalities that result in unfair lack of access to basic information that has become a fixture in households and businesses across America.”
- “Few resources are available to fund expansion of broadband infrastructure” such as construction of the middle mile or the last mile. “Other funding streams pay only for equipment or training.”
Andrea Alexander, Makah, has been working for more than 10 years to increase Northwest Tribes’ access to affordable high-speed Internet and cellular phone coverage.
“Without adequate cell phone service or access to the Internet, you can’t apply for a job, you can’t call 911, you can’t conduct business,” Alexander said. “President Obama said the Internet should be regulated like a utility. Under [George W.] Bush, private industry wrote the laws. That’s the problem. This needs to change and now’s the time to make the move.”
The root of the problem
While telecommunications companies receive Universal Service Funds to provide rural service, there’s no requirement that they invest in infrastructure in rural areas. And you can’t have adequate service without adequate infrastructure.
So, where does Universal Service Fund money go? According to the fund, the USF supports four programs:
- “Lifeline/Link-Up” provides discounts on monthly service and initial telephone installation or activation fees to income-eligible consumers.
- “High Cost” helps companies provide telecommunications services in areas where the cost of providing service is high.
- “Schools and Libraries” helps classrooms and libraries use the vast array of educational resources available through the telecommunications network, including the Internet.
- “Rural Health Care” helps link rural health care providers to urban medical centers so that residents of rural America will have access to the same advanced diagnostic and other medical services that are enjoyed in urban communities.
ICT reached out to CenturyLink, the third-largest telecommunications company in the United States, and asked how much revenue it receives annually from the Universal Service Fund surcharge on customers’ bills, and how that money -- and how much of it -- is invested in expanding access to landline, cellular and broadband service.
Linda M. Johnson of CenturyLink’s corporate communications office in Washington, D.C. responded:
“CenturyLink and other providers of interstate telecommunications services pay a percentage of their interstate revenue to the FCC’s federal Universal Service Fund. The company and other eligible telecommunications providers also receive federal USF support” – which indicates that service providers receive back some of the revenue they pay into the USF – “but the amount received is not based on the USF surcharges these companies collect on customers’ bills.”
Johnson added: “From 2011 to 2014, CenturyLink received approximately $27 million annually in federal USF support to help defray the costs of providing voice service and broadband capable networks in high-cost areas of Oregon and Washington.
“Each year, CenturyLink provided documentation to the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission that it used all of these funds for the purposes intended, which include the maintenance, extension and upgrades of the company’s infrastructure in high-cost areas. Both state commissions certified that CenturyLink had used the funds properly and should remain eligible for future funding.”
In addition, CenturyLink is receiving $42 million annually over a six-year period from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to improve cell access in “high-cost areas” of Washington and Oregon. Those funds are in lieu of, not in addition to, USF funds in those areas, Johnson said.
Tour of the Olympic Peninsula
Alexander’s program, Tribal Technology Training Program, or T3, led U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives on a tour Jan. 27 and 28, 2015 of the Quinault Nation, the Quileute Nation, the Makah Nation and the Elwha Klallam Tribe. The purpose: to inform the federal agency about efforts to bring broadband to rural reservations.
The previous year, the T3 Team helped to secure grants from the State of Washington to study the impact on Native Americans and indigenous nations of the lack of technology access and training. The study demonstrated how lack of broadband access affects education, small business development, emergency services, employment services, and access to social services.
The FCC reported in 2015 that broadband deployment in the United States — especially in rural areas — was failing to keep pace with current advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings.
Key findings in the FCC’s 2015 report determined that the following demographics lacked access to advanced broadband (defined as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads):
- 17 percent of the total U.S. population (55 million Americans).
- 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people); by contrast, 8 percent of urban Americans lacked access to advanced broadband.
- 63 percent of Americans living in Indian Country (2.5 million people).
- 85 percent living in rural areas of Indian Country (1.7 million people).
- 63 percent of Americans living in U.S. territories (2.6 million people).
- 79 percent of those living in rural territorial areas (880,000 people).
- In addition, 35 percent of schools across the nation lacked access to fiber networks capable of delivering the advanced broadband required to support today’s digital-learning tools.
Two steps forward, one step back
From 2012 to 2014, fixed broadband Internet access was deployed to 29.9 million people who never had it before, including 1 million people in Indian Country, according to a 2018 FCC report. But in 2015 and 2016, “new mobile deployments dropped 83 percent, reaching only 5.8 million more Americans, including only 2.3 million more rural Americans,” the FCC reported.
More findings from the FCC’s 2018 update:
- Rural and Tribal areas continue to lag behind urban areas in mobile broadband deployment.
- Approximately 14 million rural Americans and 1.2 million Americans living in Indian Country still lack mobile LTE broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps/3 Mbps.
- Approximately 98.1 percent of the United States has access to fixed land-based service at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps or mobile LTE at 10 Mbps/3 Mbps. That number drops to 89.7 percent in rural areas.
- 88 percent of U.S. schools meet the FCC’s short-term connectivity goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 users; 22 percent of school districts meet the FCC’s long-term connectivity goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 users.
- The U.S. ranks 10th out of 28 countries for download speed, seventh out of 29 for fixed broadband price, and 10th out of 29 for mobile broadband price.
The report “concludes that broadband services are now being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis,” but “closing the digital divide and furthering the deployment of advanced telecommunications capabilities remains the top priority for the FCC … There is much work still to be done.”
Economic, social, cultural and education benefits of access
Sharp, the Quinault president and former president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said the amount of economic development that could take place with improved cell phone reception and greater access to broadband “seems almost limitless.”
“It would enable more online sales and promotions of a great variety of Quinault products, ranging from fish products to arts and crafts,” she said. “Our entrepreneurs and business people could operate universally from their homes and businesses with greater versatility and effect.
“The benefits would go well beyond the economic benefits and include social, cultural and education benefits. The Quinault Nation has already started to reach out worldwide because we have much to offer and we have great interest in achieving the greatest possible level of self-sufficiency, prosperity and world knowledge and exposure for our People.”
Read the Washington State University/ATNI report on broadband access at www.commerce.wa.gov/Programs/Infrastructure/Broadband/Pages/LocalTechnologyPlanningTeamGrantProgram.aspx.
Richard Walker is an Indian Country Today correspondent living in Anacortes, Washington.