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Blog Posts by Sharon Gillett

FCC Launches Connect America Fund

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
April 25, 2012 - 04:51 PM

The principle of universal service is that all Americans need access to affordable communications.  In the last century, universal service programs connected virtually the entire nation to telephone service.  Now, in the 21st century, when high-speed Internet has become the essential communications tool for jobs, innovation, economic growth, education, healthcare, public safety and building communities, our goal must be to connect every American, regardless of where they live.  To do this without imposing new funding burdens on consumers means eliminating inefficient rules and bad incentives that have plagued the Universal Service Fund for years. 

That’s exactly what the Commission did last year when it voted unanimously to reform and modernize the Universal Service Fund, it set the express goal of bringing broadband access to the more than 18 million Americans, mostly rural, who lack it.  The centerpiece of this modernization is the Connect America Fund, or CAF, which transforms the old voice-centric universal service fund for rural areas into an engine for rural broadband deployment.  To meet these goals without growing the fund beyond its current size, the FCC also imposed long-overdue fiscal responsibility and accountability measures, limiting the universal service fees paid by consumers and business across the country.

Today, we take two important steps toward reaching these goals.

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Expanding Broadband and Protecting Voice Service in Rural America

February 8, 2012 - 03:04 PM

Sharon Gillett

Improving communications in rural America has always been a focus for the FCC, and the primary vehicle to achieve that goal has been the Universal Service Fund.  Despite great strides in this arena, one area where rural America still lagged the rest of the country was access to broadband.  Eighteen million Americans still have no high-speed Internet, and millions live, work, and travel in areas without mobile broadband coverage.  To address this gap, we took on the massive, once-in-a-generation task of retooling our rural subsidy system, creating the Connect America Fund to finish the job of connecting rural America to broadband, while bringing accountability and fiscal responsibility to programs that for too long lacked both.  We’re moving forward aggressively to implement these important changes.

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Smart Government Fixes for Lifeline

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
February 7, 2012 - 10:05 AM

Sharon Gillett

These past few months have been especially proud ones for me at the Federal Communications Commission for one very simple reason: I have had the privilege of being part of a team that put the principles of smart government to work.  Yesterday, the Commission released a bipartisan Order comprehensively reforming the Lifeline program, the culmination of months of effort to clean-up and modernize this vital program.

Lifeline is a program that helps low-income Americans afford phone service by providing them with a monthly discount on their phone bills, averaging $9.25, paid for by our universal service fund. The program has been around since 1985, and over that time, the percentage of low-income families with phones has increased from 80% to nearly 92%.  But the program’s problems have also increased, especially after the Commission in 2008 made it easier for pre-paid wireless providers to participate.

The pre-paid services proved very popular, in part because the companies priced their plans so the Lifeline subsidy covered the whole bill, allowing them to advertise “free” phones.  Unfortunately, Lifeline’s rules were built for the kitchen phone, not the cell phone. As a result, some consumers got multiple subsidized phones – something that didn’t happen in the hard-wired wall phone days.   Some companies were enrolling consumers who weren’t eligible.  Some companies were collecting a $30 bounty every time they signed someone up..

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New Year Solutions for Rural Call Completion Problems

by Sharon Gillett and Jamie Barnett, Chiefs of the Wireline Competition Bureau and Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau
January 5, 2012 - 10:49 AM

Rural “call completion” problems are a serious issue that the Commission has been grappling with over the past few months.  Local phone providers in rural areas have reported an alarming increase in complaints from customers that long distance calls and faxes are not reaching them. Other complaints include poor call quality and incorrect caller ID information, showing perhaps an unfamiliar local number for a long-distance call.  It’s a persistent and ongoing concern affecting 80% of rural carriers recently surveyed by a rural telephone company trade association on the issue.

This can have dire consequences.  Small businesses lose customers who get frustrated when their calls don’t go through.  Urgent long distance calls from friends or family are misidentified on caller ID and not answered.  Prescriptions faxed to a pharmacy fail to transmit. 

The issue is complicated, but in a nutshell, the problem appears to be occurring in rural areas where long distance carriers normally pay higher-than-average charges to the local telephone company to complete calls.  These charges are part of the decades-old system of “access” charges that help pay for the cost of rural networks.  To minimize these charges, some long-distance carriers use third-party “least-cost routers,” which attempt to connect calls to their destination at the lowest cost possible. Sometimes, however, the calls appear not to be connecting at all.

The good news is that new FCC rules – which took effect on Dec. 29 – will provide both short and long-term solutions to rural call completion problems.  These rules are part of an Order the FCC adopted in October making broader reforms to the access charge system, called intercarrier compensation, or ICC.

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Connect America Fund: Putting Consumers on the Map

by Sharon Gillett and Michael Byrne, Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau and Geographic Information Officer
October 12, 2011 - 12:09 PM

Last week, Chairman Genachowski unveiled his proposal to accelerate broadband build-out – wired and wireless – to unserved homes, businesses and anchor institutions across the country through the Connect America Fund. If adopted, this proposal would connect millions more Americans to high-speed Internet and bring enormous benefits to individual consumers, our nation’s economic recovery and our global competitiveness. 

View the full map

For example, consumers who make long-distance calls – including nearly all landline and mobile phone subscribers – will benefit from reduced prices or greater value for the money – or both, with an FCC-estimated $1 billion or more per year in benefits for wireless consumers alone.

Reform of the Universal Service Fund (USF) and the Intercarrier Compensation  (ICC) system can’t come soon enough. There are currently 18 million Americans who lack access to broadband. The harms from not having broadband are rising every day for consumers, and for our country.

To help illustrate the size and scope of the challenge – and the urgent need for reform – we have developed this interactive map, which shows with striking clarity that large swaths of our nation are being bypassed by the broadband revolution.

On this map, you’ll see a mix of served, partially served, and unserved areas, often right next to each other. 

Without USF and ICC reform, the map is unlikely to change much.

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Caller ID Spoofing: Who's really on the line?

by Joel Gurin and Sharon Gillett, Chief, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau and Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
June 23, 2011 - 10:05 AM

Caller ID is a boon to anyone who wants to avoid telemarketers, hostile ex-es, or other examples of what the group No Doubt called "telephonic invasion." ("It's all your fault/I screen my phone calls," they sang in the 1995 hit Spiderwebs.) It's also a helpful tool for busy people who simply want to know if a call is urgent or can be returned later. But scammers have discovered that this useful feature can be used deceptively, in ways that can cost you if you're not careful.

Consider this scenario, which happened to a reader of the Savannah (Georgia) Morning News. You get a call from your gas company, saying that your gas will be shut off unless you immediately make up for a past due bill by credit card. You're very cautious about giving out your credit card number, and it sounds like a scam to you. Except that - the caller ID on your phone tells you that this is, in fact, a call from your gas company. Or is it?  The consumer who got this call was a victim of caller ID spoofing: A con where the scammer made someone else's caller ID appear on the consumers' caller ID service.

There are sometimes good reasons for a caller to hide behind this kind of electronic mask. For example, domestic violence shelters may need to use an ID number in order for their calls to be received, yet may have good reasons not to reveal their true phone number. Far too often, though, fake caller IDs are used by bad actors to get money from consumers, steal consumers' identities, or stalk or harass.  Many consumers have complained to the FCC about callers seeking consumers' financial or other confidential information by purporting to be the consumers' credit card companies, while there are other reports of con artists masquerading as government officials or banks to get identity or financial information from consumers.

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Progress Made on the Road To Bring Broadband to Rural Areas, but Many Miles To Go

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
June 22, 2011 - 06:49 PM

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Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill recognized the importance of bringing broadband to rural America.  It told the FCC Chairman, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, to take a close look at rural broadband, and to submit reports describing “a comprehensive rural broadband strategy” to Congress.  In May of 2009, Acting Chairman Copps delivered the first report.  Today, Chairman Genachowski released the second—and final— report required by the legislation.

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Exceptional Health Care for Rural America

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
June 22, 2011 - 06:44 PM

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There are rules, and there are exceptions.  This week we’re making some common-sense exceptions so that some 235 health care providers can continue to provide high-quality health care to rural America.

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Reforming Intercarrier Compensation for Broadband

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
April 13, 2011 - 12:10 PM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:119:height=100,width=71]]In February, the Commission took a pivotal step to reform government policy to better reflect the world of broadband today and in the future.  In adopting the USF/ICC Transformation NPRM, the Commission launched major reform of the nation’s universal service and intercarrier compensation systems, building momentum to get the job done as soon as possible.  The current system, based on a voice-centric world, actually deters investment in 21st Century Internet protocol networks.
One part of this effort will examine and learn from the actions that state partners have taken to reduce intrastate access rates – rates that service providers charge one another to complete long distance calls within a state.  By taking action to reform these charges, states further the FCC’s goals of modernizing the intercarrier compensation system for a broadband world, reducing incentives for regulatory gamesmanship, and paving the way to lower long distance and wireless rates for consumers.

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Digging for More Broadband Deployment

by Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau
April 7, 2011 - 12:52 PM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:119:height=98,width=70]]It’s easy to forget that the virtual reality of the Internet depends on the gritty reality of wires hung on utility poles, wireless signals carried by antennas and receivers on towers and fiber buried under streets and railroad rights-of-way. But the cost of reaching consumers and businesses with broadband Internet access depends in no small part on the time and expense required to string wires on poles and dig under streets.
To reduce costs and delays, the FCC is working to reform infrastructure policies through its Broadband Acceleration Initiative.  The goal: help broadband providers get robust, affordable wired and wireless broadband everywhere.  Today, that initiative bore fruit when the FCC approved real reform in the arcane world of pole attachments.
Consider this: some communications companies report that it can take many months or even years for utility companies to do the work necessary for broadband providers to attach their wires or antennas to utility poles.  Wireless providers, for example, report that faster and more predictable attachments could save them over $5 billion – money that could be better spent on deploying and upgrading broadband for consumers across the country.  So today we adopted rules that will make expanding and improving broadband networks faster, cheaper and more predictable.

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