Thursday, April 02, 2009

PSC Files Comments with FCC on Federal Rural Broadband Strategy, Forgets Affordability Issue for Low-Income Households

Recently, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) , along with the state’s Office for Technology (OT), filed comments with the FCC regarding the creation of a federal rural broadband strategy. The FCC was looking for input on means to coordinate the various federal agencies involved with the broadband deployment effort and to streamline and improve broadband strategies.

The PSC took non-controversial, often obvious positions.

The PSC/OT called for the creation of a single point of contact for all involved federal agencies and programs to “simplify the efforts of concerned citizens, communities, and broadband providers seeking information and funds to address broadband deployment issues.” They supported the call for improved broadband mapping to determine the areas of greatest need in terms of availability and speed and urged the FCC to look at statewide initiatives when developing broadband strategies. “This will not only save the federal agencies time and money,” the Commission wrote, “more importantly it will increase the likelihood of success of a national broadband plan and speed the deployment of broadband services to rural areas.”

The filing cited to the efforts of the fledgling New York State Universal Broadband Council and a study by Commission Staff on access in rural areas to telecommunications services. Creating a catalog of contact names within each state was recommended as well.

While these are laudable points, they lack insight and ignored possibly the largest hurdle of all – unaffordability of broadband service to many low-income New York households. Indeed, many low-income households cannot afford computers needed to use broadband. The state Broadband Council has insufficient resources to address these problems.

Generally, New York is recognized as being ahead of other states when it comes to deployment of broadband infrastructure. Between the local exchange carriers (DSL) and the cable television providers (cable modem service), broadband is available to most residents from at least one provider (Satellite-based broadband is conceivably available everywhere, but can be prohibitively expensive).

However, what percentage of the population can afford DSL or cable modem service even if it has been delivered to their doorstep in a rural community of the state?

Nowhere in the PSC’s comments does it mention affordability.

Yes, federal stimulus money will be available to telecom service providers to bring broadband infrastructure where it is missing (unserved areas) and where it is only partially available (underserved areas). Criteria will be established to best ensure that “shovel ready” projects are funded to bring broadband to rural areas (and inner cities as well), but the Commission had an opportunity to address affordability and failed to do so.

Due to mileage considerations, the cost to bring broadband to all rural areas can understandably be enormous and the business case has, in some instances, not been made to make rural universal broadband commercially viable. Therefore, federal assistance has been made available to help support the running of high-speed lines. However, where is the support to maintain these connections, once built, and to help people afford to use the service?

A program similar to the Lifeline discount telephone service may be the best solution to achieving access to broadband in low-income households.

Perhaps the PSC opted not to mention affordability as a barrier to broadband use due to its own abysmal record with telephone Lifeline assistance enrollment. The program has seen a drop of over 450,000 subscribers in New York over the past decade and only about 300,000 customers receive Lifeline today, out of an eligibility pool exceeding well over one million.

By way of contrast, California has seven times as many people receiving Lifeline telephone assistance as New York, even though California has fewer households receiving SNAP (Food Stamps) assistance than New York. SNAP is one of the eligibility-conferring programs for Lifeline. If New York’s telephone Lifeline assistance program simply reached the more than one million SNAP households, those households would have their phone bills lowered by more than $100 million, they would have more available to meet their household expenses, and some might then be able to afford a low cost broadband service.

Lou Manuta

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