Thursday, March 12, 2015

FCC adopts Internet universal service obligation

Finding the United States needs improved Internet access, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission today released a report and order classifying Internet service as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act. That subjects Internet service providers (ISPs) to the same common carrier universal service obligations under which telephone companies operate, requiring them to provide connections to all customers requesting service in their service territories. Harold Feld of Public Knowledge recently termed universal service “the quintessential common-carrier obligation.”

Under prior FCC rules, Internet service was classified as an information service under Title I of the Act, relieving ISPs of the obligation to provide Internet service to any premise requesting it. Consequently, for more than a decade ISPs have effectively redlined communities, neighborhoods and even portions of roads and streets by not building out their infrastructures to serve them.

The FCC's reclassification of Internet as a Title II telecommunications service invokes Section 201(a) of the Communications Act:

"It shall be the duty of every common carrier engaged in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio to furnish such communication service upon reasonable request therefor..."

The FCC's order and rulemaking also applies Section 254(b)(3) of the Communications Act that requires ISPs to provide access to advanced telecommunications in all regions of the nation:

(3) Access in rural and high cost areas

Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services, including interexchange services and advanced telecommunications and information services, that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.

The report and order also applies Section 214(e)(3) of the Communications Act, which empowers the FCC to "determine which common carrier or carriers are best able to provide such service to the requesting unserved community or portion thereof and shall order such carrier or carriers to provide such service for that unserved community or portion thereof."

In addition, within the scope of the FCC's action is Section 202 of the Act, which contains an anti-redlining provision barring providers from discriminating against localities in providing service. The report and order notes complaints of violations will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

In applying most of Section 254 of the Act to ISPs, the FCC noted it rejected calls to delay or phase in its enforcement:

“Even prior to the classification of broadband Internet access service adopted here, the Commission already supported broadband services to schools, libraries, and health care providers and supported broadband-capable networks in high-cost areas. Broadband Internet access service was, and is, a key focus of those universal service policies, and classification today simply provides another statutory justification in support of these policies going forward. Under our broader section 10(a)(3) public interest analysis, the historical focus of our universal service policies on advancing end-users’ access to broadband Internet access service persuades us to give much less weight to arguments that we should proceed incrementally in this context… We therefore conclude that these universal service policy-making provisions of section 254, and the interrelated requirements of section 214(e), give us greater flexibility in pursuing those policies, and outweighs any limited incremental effects (if any) on broadband providers in this context. Because forbearance would not be in the public interest under section 10(a)(3), we apply these provisions of section 254 and 214(e) and our implementing rules with respect to broadband Internet access service.”

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