August 1996

Will the FCC Recognize the Need for Universal Service?

(Written July 2, 1996)

by Ronda Hauben

I just returned from a fascinating week in Montreal, Canada where I attended the INET '96 conference held by the Internet Society.

What became clear at the conference was that this is an important time in the development of the Internet. People from around the world attended the conference, and most expressed the desire that the Internet be made available in their countries for educational, scientific, and other uses. Some of the focus of the conference was on business uses of the Internet, but it seemed that there was a great concern among the people I spoke to that the Internet be available for educational, scientific, government, and community purposes, not just for business use.

The final talk was to be given by Reed Hundt of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. He didn't attend however, and instead the talk was given by Blair Levin, Chief of Staff at the FCC.

The talk was a surprise as it seemed uninformed both about the history and importance of the Internet and of the important public policy considerations that need to be taken into account when making any rules for regulating the Internet. (1)

At the beginning of the talk, there was the statement that Reed Hundt was the first FCC Chairman to have a computer on his desk, and that he asked his staff to explain how the Internet works. Instead of a commitment to learn about how the Internet developed and the significant impact it is having on the world, however, Levin presented us with the glib "the Internet gives us the opportunity to change all our communications policies."

The problem with this is that the FCC is therefore starting from scratch, throwing out all the lessons that have helped the Internet grow and develop, and instead, creating its own models.

In his talk Blair Levin listed five principles. They were:

  1. How can public policy promote expansion of bandwidth?
  2. What rules can we get rid of or have?
  3. The concern with pricing.
  4. How to make sure it reaches everyone, especially kids in schools.
  5. How to make sure it reaches across the globe.

The problem with Levin's principles are that they put universal service as the 4th point, and then basically substitute access for kids in schools for the principle of universal service.

During the talk, Blair described how the NTIA (the National Telecommunications Information Administration) had submitted an important paper to the FCC on the issue of voice over the Internet. This made it clear that the NTIA has not submitted any paper to the FCC on the issue of universal service, despite the fact that they held an online hearing on several issues, including universal service and the Internet, in November 1994. The NTIA has done nothing to act on the broad expression of sentiment for universal service that was expressed during that online public meeting. (2)

When asked about that online meeting, Blair said that the FCC knew of the meeting. However, it seems to have had no effect on their deliberations, nor on the request of people that the FCC open up their decision-making process so that the people who are being affected by their decisions have a means of providing input into those decisions.

In response to a question about the need for universal service, Blair responded that that was the obligation of other branches of the U.S. government like the Department of Education. He said this despite the fact the FCC is charged with making rules to provide for the universal service provisions of the Telecommunications Act passed by the U.S. Congress in February 1996.

Blair also claimed to welcome submissions into their process. But I found it would cost over $50 to pay postage costs for a submission since there were over 35 people who had to receive a copy (and postage on a minimal submission was $1.45).(3) In response to a complaint about this cost, Blair said to see Kevin Werbach, a lawyer at the FCC, who had come with him. Kevin Werbach offered no means of dealing with the high cost of making a submission.

Many people at the Internet Society Conference applauded in response to the question about the lack of concern by the FCC for the principle of universal service to the Internet. At the Internet Society conference, many people spoke up about the need in their countries, whether that be Canada, or Norway, or Ghana, etc. for the Net to be more widespread and available to the public for educational and community purposes. Many were concerned about the lack of ability of the so called "market forces" to provide networking access to other than corporate or well-to-do users. Yet, Levin's talk, being given in the name of the Chairman of the regulatory body in the U.S. charged with making the rules to provide for universal service, was unconcerned about the important issues and problems that providing universal service to the Internet raises.

It is unfortunate that Reed Hundt didn't come to the conference and take the challenge to learn what the real concerns of people around the world are with regard to access to the Internet. Isolated in Washington, with no access to him possible for most people (though someone from one company told me that he was told to send him email whenever he had a concern), it seems difficult for the rules process to be able to produce any helpful outcome. There need to be open meetings and sessions where people who are concerned with these issues are invited to be heard and to discuss these issues with the FCC. Instead the FCC process is being carried out in a manner similar to the non public process carried on behind closed doors which was used by the U.S. Congress to craft the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

It is a tribute to the Internet Society that they did make an effort to invite government officials like Reed Hundt to the conference. The FCC will be setting an example for the rest of the world by the telecommunications policy rules it creates. Will the policy be one that recognizes that the so called "market" cannot provide the free or low cost access to the Internet that is necessary to make universal service a reality? Will the rules created be based on looking back at how time-sharing and then the ARPANET and the Internet developed so they can build on those lessons?

To create rules that are based on firm lessons from the past and firm principles so they will be fruitful, it is necessary that the FCC process creating those rules be much more open than it is at present. If the FCC could learn from the experience of the Internet and set up newsgroups and real email access to the officials involved, that would demonstrate a commitment to more equitable access to the Internet and the FCC rulemaking process that is needed to make the Internet available to all. But from the recent talk presented by the FCC official at INET '96, there seems little indication that the need for an open process and a many-to-many means of communication is recognized among those at the FCC. There is even less evidence that the FCC is capable of making rules to apply the principle of universal service to make Internet access available to all.


  1. This is particularly surprising in light of the "Notice of Inquiry" issued by the Federal Communications Commission, Ben F. Waple, Secretary, Docket No. 16979, November 10, 1966. In this inquiry the FCC noted the growing convergence of computers and communications and recognized these would raise a number of regulatory and policy questions that the FCC would be obligated to address. And the Commission acknowledged its obligation under the Telecommunications Act to respond to these questions by "timely and informed as to serve the needs of the public effectively, efficiently, and economically." A copy of this inquiry is available in "Conversational Computers," edited by William D. Orr, New York, 1968, p. 177-186.

  2. For a summary of the discussion during the online meeting about the need for universal service, see " The NTIA Conference on the Future of the Net: Creating a Prototype for a Democratic Decision Making Process," by Ronda Hauben and " The Net and the Future of Politics: The Ascendency of the Commons," by Michael Hauben.

  3. I personally made the effort to make a submission. In the process, I learned the high cost of having to serve 35 parties by mail in addition to providing several copies to the FCC itself. Such costly postage and copying requirements effectively bar many interested people who will be affected by the rules from participating in the proceedings determining the rules.

Ronda Hauben ( has been researching and writing about the history and impact of the Net for several years. She is a founding editor and writer for the Amateur Computerist newsletter, and she has given talks at community colleges, universities and public libraries about the history and importance of the Internet. She is coauthor of Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, which is being prepared as a printed book.

Copyright © 1996 by Ronda Hauben. All Rights Reserved.

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