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Wireless carriers mislead consumers about USF reform

Madison, Wis. - The federal Universal Service Fund (USF) has provided thousands of TDS Telecom customers with access to high-tech communication services. Beginning with traditional wireline telephone service and now with high-speed broadband Internet service in communities far and wide, the USF has facilitated historic achievements and enabled growth. Though much remains to be accomplished, especially in ensuring that these critical networks are updated regularly, the USF has helped build the telecommunications infrastructure that is now crucial to American economic competitiveness.

The march of telecommunications progress, however, is not without obstacles. Wireless phone providers have added complexity to the Fund. The unchecked expansion of USF support to predominantly wireless telephone companies has driven up the funding allocated through USF by 1,000 percent, threatening unprecedented burdens on the entire USF program.

In response to this explosive growth, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service recently recommended temporarily capping payments to wireless companies at the 2006 level. This action does not propose decreasing support already provided, but rather imposes limits similar to those under which regular wireline telephone companies, like TDS Telecom, have operated under for more than 10 years.

Furious criticism

Not surprisingly, this decision has ignited a fury of criticism from wireless carriers, who are intent on opposing this critical reform. Simply put, without a short-term cap on the growth of payments to wireless companies while long-term solutions are created, the long-term sustainability of USF is at serious risk.
While wireline carriers have operated under capped support, support for wireless carriers has doubled every year since 2002. The temporary cap proposed by the Joint Board does not abolish support for wireless carriers, but rather controls that support in a manner similar to wireline companies.

Objections to the Joint Board's recommendation must be substantiated. Contentions that the quality of wireless service will drop without continued break-neck increases in payments are unfounded. Unfortunately, instead of any specific policy explanations, consumers have been the victims of misleading advertising campaigns funded by wireless interests.

Fundamentally, wireless providers rely upon the infrastructure of in-ground, wireline telecommunication networks. As America pushes to expand broadband Internet coverage, the greatest challenge we face is the deployment of advanced in-ground infrastructure throughout our vast nation.

This USF funding crisis, created by out-of-control support to wireless providers, threatens support for projects that would modernize and expand network infrastructure - the very infrastructure, in fact, that wireless providers depend upon to provide their services. Many forget that wireless calls travel, and are frequently completed, using wireline equipment and facilities.

In need of good stewards

TDS supports the Joint Board's recommendation for a temporary cap to ensure the sustainability of affordable, universal access to crucial telecommunications services while long-term solutions are developed. Wireless companies should be allowed to receive USF support, but those providers must be good stewards of USF resources to ensure deployment of next-generation telecommunications technologies.

Whatever policymakers make of the unsubstantiated suggestions put forth by cellular telephone interests, there is no question that every service will suffer if USF collapses under the weight of excessive wireless payments.

Residential and business consumers should strongly support the Joint Board's initial recommendation. Contact the Federal Communications Commission and urge the commission to act swiftly in putting this financially prudent and well-intended recommendation in place.

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Dave Wittwer is president and CEO of TDS Telecommunications Corp. in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

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