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Boucher: Expanding Access Remains the Goal

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet had a full agenda in 2009, and we will continue to move at an aggressive pace during the second session of the 111th Congress to foster an environment that allows our nation to continue its leadership in technological innovation, expands broadband usage, and increases the availability of new technological products and services to consumers and businesses. For these reasons, we will focus on:

• Reforming the Universal Service Fund: The policy of promoting universal telecommunications service for all Americans has been fundamental in driving our nation’s economic and social development. However, the Universal Service Fund, which telecommunications companies contribute to, is broken. Consumers currently pay more than 12 percent of long-distance revenues into the fund, and that number will jump to more than 14 percent in January. I authored a comprehensive reform of the program with Rep. Lee Terry (Neb.), a Republican member of the Subcommittee on Communications.

Our measure would improve the Universal Service Fund and ensure its continued viability by allowing use of the fund for broadband deployment, broadening the base of contributions into the fund, controlling distributions from the fund and implementing competitive bidding for wireless providers. It also makes a number of other long-needed changes to improve fund administration. The discussion draft is a comprehensive and forward-looking measure, which will control the spiraling growth of the Universal Service Fund while ensuring that support is available to the carriers that rely on it to provide services. I look forward to working with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet ranking member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) to enact this needed measure.

• Ensuring ubiquitous availability of broadband: In addition to promoting broadband deployment through reform of the Universal Service Fund, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided significant funds for the deployment of broadband and the stimulation of demand for it. The ARRA provides a total of $7.2 billion for grants and loans for broadband deployment and related activities, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce and the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture. While $7.2 billion is not enough to achieve universal broadband access, it is a good down payment. The ARRA also requires the Federal Communications Commission to develop a National Broadband Plan that will be provided to Congress in February 2010. This plan will provide a comprehensive framework for bringing broadband — the economic engine of the 21st century — to all Americans. Conducting oversight of the ARRA broadband grants and the National Broadband Plan will continue to be an important part of the subcommittee’s agenda.

• Protecting consumer privacy: I want to promote greater use of the Internet by assuring Internet users a high degree of privacy protection, including transparency about the collection, use and sharing of information about them, and giving them control over that collection, use and sharing. Consumers are entitled to some baseline protections in the online space. If someone does not want a Web site he visits to use information it collects to deliver ads to him, he should be able to opt out of that use. A consumer also has a reasonable expectation that a Web site he visits will not be sharing his information with unrelated third parties. Accordingly, if a Web site wants to provide information to an unrelated third party, it should procure that Internet user’s opt-in consent. This structure should not prove burdensome for Internet-based businesses that rely on targeted advertising and is in line with the practices of reputable service providers today. More importantly, by giving Internet users a greater confidence that they have control over the collection and use of information about them by Web sites, the privacy guarantees will encourage greater levels of general Internet usage and e-commerce, benefiting not only consumers, but also the companies that transact business online and our nation’s economy. I will be offering bipartisan legislation with Congressman Stearns to provide privacy assurances soon.

• Freeing up spectrum: Our nation is about to face a spectrum crisis. As more people use wireless devices and as advanced applications require higher data rates, we will need additional spectrum to accommodate growth. There is a clear need to identify additional spectrum that can be made available for commercial wireless services.

That is why I have joined with Chairman Waxman and ranking members Barton and Stearns to introduce the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act. This measure would direct the NTIA and the FCC to undertake a comprehensive survey of our spectrum resources and identify that which is underutilized. It will allow us to make better use of spectrum frequencies, including through sharing and reallocation, and will encourage innovation and competitiveness.

The communications industry affects nearly every aspect of our lives, our communities and our society. New technologies, devices and services shape how we participate in the public debate, share our stories, keep in touch with family and friends, and enhance our understanding of the increasingly interconnected world around us. The subcommittee’s agenda in 2010 will ensure that consumers continue to benefit from ever-improving communications services.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

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