Getting on the Information Country Road
When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it assumed the act would affect all rural communities as well as schools, libraries and hospitals in the very near future. However, while the act specifically mandated that telecommunications service providers furnish all schools across the United States with affordable Internet access, it did not make the same provisions for local governments. That is not a problem for high-income, urban areas, but low-income, high-cost (rural) areas find themselves being bypassed on the information superhighway because of a lack of funds.
One of the primary purposes of the Telecommunications Act, which has been in effect for nearly two years now, was to replace monopolies with competition. Competition between service providers was expected to offer more choices than ever before to rural communities, thereby eventually providing more affordable telecommunications service to everyone in the United States. However, competition is now expected to be less intense in rural areas than was originally thought because service providers are unlikely to invest in wiring rural communities unless they are assured of a certain number of customers over a designated time.
In theory, a lack of competition could mean that the benefits of deregulation will eventually turn into handicaps for rural communities and citizens. Some experts, in fact, argue that bringing to telecommunications the same competition that was brought to rural rail, air and bus services is undesirable since, in many of those cases, abandonment of services was a frequent result.
“More than 100 years ago, it became clear that railroads would be the catalyst to settling the American continent,” says Randy Johnson, a member of the FCC’s State and Local Government Advisory Committee and president of the National Association of Counties. “The federal government bent over backward to help railway companies expand their systems. It got tracks to just about every town in America, and those it missed died or became insignificant settlements. There is no difference between that and what will happen to rural areas that do not get telecommunications service. Areas without this service will be severely limited.” The matter is of great concern to Johnson, who as a Hennepin County, Minn., commissioner, represents a largely rural state.
The Universal Service Fund In 1934, the Universal Service Fund was established to ensure that modern telecommunications services were available to rural areas. The fund defined universal services as those essential to education, public health and public safety; those subscribed to by a substantial majority of residential customers; those deployed in public telecommunications networks; and those consistent with public interest, convenience and necessity. In the past, universal services included: * voice-grade access to the public switched network, including access to both local and long-distance calling; * touch tone; * single-party service; * access to 911 and/or enhanced 911; * operator services; * automatic number identification; * directory assistance; and * white page listings.
Today, rural areas argue that the definition of universal services needs to be extended to include Internet access and other machine-to-machine services, such as high-speed fax lines, at affordable costs. Although those services are routinely available in most cities, rural communities have traditionally been far less likely to have access to advanced communications technology.
Rural areas, however, can expect no help from the federal government in getting wired, according to Hamilton Brown, director of training and technical assistance for the National Center for Small Communities (NCSC) in Washington, D.C. “Years ago, the federal government took the initiative to get everyone wired when it came to telephone service, sometimes running a wire an extra mile or two just for one house,” he says. “This will not be the case with Internet access. The federal government will try to get rural schools, libraries and hospitals Internet access, but it does not care if private business, local governments or citizens have access.”
In many rural areas, long-distance phone lines are the only means of providing a community with telecommunications services. “Many rural areas are paying premium long-distance prices for Internet access,” Brown says. “This means, if it takes 20 minutes to hook up to a site, they are paying extremely high prices for those 20 minutes, whereas, if it takes 20 minutes to hook up to a site, say, in Atlanta, you are only paying local phone prices.”
According to Brown, one informal study showed the same high-speed phone line costing $237 per month in urban Portland, Ore., and $2,080 in rural Lakeview. In Bullhead, Ariz., a rural school that had finally gotten its first local Internet dial-up access found it was going to be charged $130 per month for a telephone line.
Larry Povich, an analyst for the Common Carrier Bureau, Washington, D.C., says that the FCC decided to contribute $7 per subscriber, per month from the Universal Service Fund to low-income, rural communities. The decision was scheduled to be effective as of January 1, 1998, but it has been put on hold for the time being.
“This decision was made last May, and there just hasn’t been enough time to implement it,” Povich says. “Although the program has been put on hold, the money will be retroactive to January.”
Because local officials have so many questions regarding FCC rules, Internet access and implementation, the FCC is enhancing access to its Internet web site in hopes of making the subject easier to understand. The FCC web site allows users to review procedures, and file and review comments. Since the passage of the Telecom Act, the site has taken 90,000 hits a day, up from 30,000.
The FCC also has put an implementation schedule on its web site and has created a special web page for locally held public forums on the various provisions of the act. However, the web site can only answer questions from and inform those local governments that already have Internet access. Because many rural leaders do not have broad access to the Internet, they are poorly informed about the advocacy role they must play in order to put their communities on the telecommunications map.
Helping local governments Once they are wired, rural areas will need investment and job training programs to capture the benefits offered by the information superhighway. In an effort to help rural community leaders in that regard, the NCSC is awaiting a $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will allow it to publish a book to guide rural community leaders in Internet use. The grant was expected to go through in mid-February, allowing the center to publish and distribute 10,000 copies by November.
“Even if rural communities could afford telecommunications service, they would not know how to take advantage of it,” Brown says. “The guide will offer a range of resources and describe the benefits of having Internet access. Because information seems so limitless, it also will walk through how to conduct a targeted search and zero in on information. The guide will provide 10 to 20 sites that we feel are of particular importance to rural communities, showing exact pictures of what these web sites look like.” (For information on the guide, contact Hamilton Brown at 202-624-3550.)
Additionally, the FCC has created a state and local advisory committee that will help clear intergovernmental communications between local governments and the commission. “There is a benefit to both urban and rural areas when steps are taken to ensure the affordability of telephone service in parts of the country where it would otherwise be more expensive,” says committee member Ken Fellman. “Expanding the number of people using advanced telecommunications services makes the network more valuable for everyone.”
According to Fellman, states with low population densities have expressed grave concern over a decision the FCC made under former Chairman Reed Hundt, who had decided to fund the wiring of rural areas solely through interstate resources. That would leave federal support mechanisms to cover only 25 percent of the calculated program cost.
That decision to delegate to the individual states the obligation to support 75 percent of the identified subsidy amount would have led to significant increases in rates for intrastate and interstate telephone services, potentially undermining the basic principles of Universal Service. (The states’ 75 percent would come from local and long-distance phone charges levied by service providers.)
A change in the FCC chairmanship may offer some relief. Under new Chairman Bill Kennard, the FCC is reconsidering the 25-75 decision. Meanwhile, no money is going anywhere.
Unfortunately for rural areas, Ira Magaziner, the president’s chief telecommunications policy advisor, stated at a recent conference that there is little support inside or outside the government to fund universal access in unserved areas through a surcharge on current customers. (Currently, telecommunications services are provided by local and regional telephone companies, cable companies, on-line services and long-distance service providers.) “In most states, public utility commissions will set the basic rates for telecommunication services for rural areas,” Magaziner said at the conference.
The State and Local Government Advisory Committee, however, is asking that support be extended to rural areas through both interstate and intrastate revenues to those be administered at the national level, addressing 100 percent of the identified subsidy requirement. Only that approach, the committee argues, will allow areas to achieve the national policy objective of ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable telecommunications services.
The committee says the FCC should also follow through on its plans to appoint a rural task force to advise it on rural implementation issues. It also has strongly suggested that the FCC not allow the Universal Service Fund to be used as a budget-balancing tool.
“The budget and tax compromise agreed to by the White House and Congress includes the provision of a $3 billion loan from the Universal Service Fund,” Fellman says. “This serious questions about its continued viability.”
Other options According to Brown, some states are forming partnerships with private companies to fund telecommunications service to rural areas. NACo’s Johnson says that the state departments of transportation and administration have joined two companies in a deal to lay 1,800 miles of fiber-optic cable across Minnesota. In exchange for exclusive freeway rights-of-way, the companies will provide free access to the system to state, city and county agencies.
The private agencies will control the $150 million network and have exclusive use of the rights-of-way for the first 10 years of a 30-year contract. For the following 20 years, other companies will have an opportunity to share in use of the rights-of-way. The statewide backbone will then revert to state ownership after 30 years.
The partnership, Johnson says, offers many advantages, including: * making advanced telecommunications services available so rural areas will not be at a disadvantage in competing with major population centers in the information age; * financing through private, not state, funds. (Iowa spent $295 million to build a telecommunications network eight years ago); * a savings of $5 million a year in annual costs for communications capacity; * development of Internet 2, a new higher level network for research, development and governmental use in which all University of Minnesota campuses will participate; and * greatly enhanced communications services in schools, hospitals and local governments.
According to Miles Fidelman, president of the Center for Civic Networking, some localities have used local bond issues to finance community-wide access to the Internet, while others have worked through municipally owned utilities. “Rural electric cooperatives and cooperative telephone companies are potential sources of expertise and possible funding for rural telecommunications infrastructure and service if other providers are too distant, too expensive or scheduled to build systems too far in the future,” Fidelman says.
Mount Clemens, Mich., in Macomb County, is not waiting on the FCC to help it obtain telecommunications services. A store-bought
system has made the county clerk’s office the first government office in the state to link telephone calls to the office from an Internet web page.
“The clerk’s office does not have an Internet server or even a computer network, but we are still able to make technology work for county residents,” Macomb County Commissioner Linda McGrail says. “We are able to find low-cost ways to use the latest technology without purchasing a big, expensive system.”
The county is using a system called SomeOne from Telecom, Boca Raton, Fla. The system uses the public telephone system to deliver the call, and the Internet is used to complete the call between a customer and the clerk’s office. The clerk’s office has paid a $40 set-up fee for the service and will pay an additional 18 cents per minute for the telephone calls. The clerk’s web site and many other county web sites are hosted by the public library.
Like Mount Clemens, many rural communities are finding their own means of getting hooked up to telecommunications service – or at least finding information on the topic. Last October, Comedian, Maine, hosted the Restructuring American Communities Conference, a national conference focusing on the impact of telecommunications on small towns and rural communities.
The 500 conference attendees represented local government. “Most local officials must initially learn the issues, the terminology and a framework for decision-making before engaging in long-range planning,” Brown says.
Conference speakers emphasized the importance of affordable Internet access and insisted that it is critical for small and isolated communities to stay competitive in economic development, education and public safety. They also encouraged local governments to contact members of the FCC or their state representatives with questions and issues regarding telecommunications service.
Brown encourages rural community leaders to find out how many of their citizens are potential customers for Internet access. Community leaders then should contact the service providers. “Rural communities need to shop around for the best deal,” Brown says. “Many areas think they need to beg service providers to service them, but that is not the case. Rural America is the new marketplace for them. Urban areas are pretty much taken care of, so that leaves the practically uncharted territory of rural areas.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has reallocated 24 Mhz of television frequencies for cities and counties to use for public safety and emergency medical services. Associate legislative director for the National League of Cities Donald Murray, says that the spectrum previously assigned to TV UHF channels 60 – 69 has been split between public safety radio services (24 Mhz) and new commercial uses (36 Mhz). This represents the single largest allotment to public safety services in history; it also more than doubles the space available for local public communications needs.
For nearly a decade, public safety and local government officials have been urging the federal government to allot more spectrum for public safety telecommunications needs. In 1995, the federally- appointed Public Safety Advisory Wireless Committee announced that the nation’s public safety communications network required at least 50 percent more capacity to protect property and lives. The committee also reported that space is especially needed so federal, state and local public safety personnel can communicate among themselves.
According to the Association of Public Safety Communications, lack of spectrum interfered with rescue efforts after the Oklahoma City bombing, when runners were used to relay messages because there were not enough frequencies for public safety agencies to communicate with one another. Lack of spectrum also posed a problem for firefighters attempting to communicate with each other after the World Trade Center bombing, the association says.
Licensing and service rules have yet to be finalized. The FCC will issue application guidelines to counties no later than Sept. 30.
Cities and counties readily pay their phone bills every month, without checking to see if the information on the bill is correct. In many cases, phone companies mistakenly charge local governments for services they did not ask for and do not need. A phone bill audit can uncover charges that should be refunded to cities and counties.
In Broward County, Fla., where the current annual cost of telecommunications services is in excess of $5 million, a phone audit found more than $600,000 in billing errors. The county will also save more than $130,000 a year through preventive measures and equipment changes.
“We never dreamed there could be so many errors,” Budget Director John Canada says. “I would highly recommend having your phone bills audited. There’s no telling how much a city or county could get refunded.”
Auditing firms usually find common problems such as charging local governments the wrong rates for lines, charging taxes when the governments are tax-exempt, selling the government features it does not need and billing for lines that are never installed. Broward County discovered that, for six years, it was paying for 12 lines that were never installed. Local governments can have local and long distance bills, equipment maintenance records and data circuits reviewed without worrying about paying auditors a flat fee. Many companies do not charge fees for the audit, but take a percentage of refunds recovered, an off-budget approach that can save local governments time.
Other Florida cities also have benefited from phone audits. Lauderdale Lakes received a refund of $18,000 because the phone company charged the city taxes from which it was exempt. Additionally, Martin County discovered it could save $2,000 a month by taking the inside wire maintenance feature off the county’s telephone bill.
“Cities and counties need to pay attention to their phone bills because there may be features on there that the city did not ask for or want,” Canada says. “For example, the inside wire maintenance feature ensures the city that if its wiring ever goes bad, and copper wiring never does, the phone company will replace it at no cost. But actually, the city is paying a fee each month for this service and that can really add up.”
Local governments can take certain steps to ensure that they are paying only for services they receive. These include: * Requesting a separate long distance bill from the long distance carrier. Most long distance companies will charge in six-second increments if they do their own billing. But when the local telephone companies bill for them, local governments pay in whole-minute increments; * Removing all inside wire maintenance charges. These service plans usually cost approximately $2.50 per month, per line, to cover any repairs to copper wiring inside a building. However, copper wire has a life expectancy of 14 years, but can last more than 100 years, if properly insulated from moisture and extreme temperatures; * Watching out for incorrect tariff charges. They are usually small charges, but, multiplied by the number of lines and monthly charges, they can add up quickly; * Understanding an expanded toll area and when to dial direct versus when to use a long distance carrier. An expanded toll area is not considered local, but it is the area just outside the local calling area and is usually billed at a flat, or, inexpensive, rate by the local carrier. The local carrier also has territory outside the expanded area in which it sometimes charges a toll rate much higher than the long distance carrier; * Getting the long distance carrier to assign employee accounting codes, giving each employee a unique code that must be used to dial a long distance number. This will allow cities and counties to better evaluate long distance calls and to monitor employee telephone usage; * Requesting bills on a computer disk to make it easier to monitor calls. This will enable cities to group calls by user and allow them to sort by dates, times and places; and * Monitoring in-house 800 numbers, the number one area of employee telephone abuse. The numbers can be checked by dialing a random sampling of phone numbers and listening for answering machines. Recurring phone numbers and extended calls should be noted.
The National League of Cities has published “Siting Cellular Towers: What You Need to Know, What You Need To Do” to clarify zoning issues involving cellular towers. The guide provides an overview of provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that govern the siting of cellular towers in cities and counties.
The 1996 act restructured and deregulated most aspects of the communications industry, creating a marketplace filled with new, more efficient technologies that could help cities and counties in creating jobs and helping local businesses stay competitive. As the use of wireless technology becomes more widespread, local officials must be prepared to play a leadership role in defining land use, zoning and service policies to ensure that community needs are considered and protected.
The 24-page book offers examples of ordinances regulating the placement of cellular antennas and towers. It also covers topics such as location, safety, application procedures and review, joint ventures and establishing or modifying local regulations affecting cellular towers.
The guide was created jointly by the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, International City/County Management Association, American Planning Association, Public Technology Inc. and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Administrators. Copies can be ordered from the NLC Publications Center, P.O. Box 491, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701; phone (301) 725-4299. The price is $10 ($5 for NLC members) plus $3 for shipping and handling.
When placing a cellular tower, providers not only analyze usage patterns and cell site capacity, they also must look for inconspicuous cover for the tower. In downtown Atlanta, the Cathedral of St. Philip has provided ideal camouflage.
In exchange for rent, the 82-year-old church has allowed a cellular service provider to install a tower in its belfry. The provider purchased exact replica materials to enclose wiring on the tower and to shield antennas so the exterior of the church remained unaffected. It also constructed an underground storage building to contain communications equipment, and it planted ivy, shrubbery and dogwoods to conceal that site.
Prior to the project’s ground-breaking, neighbors and cathedral members attended a public meeting to discuss the construction schedule and landscaping plans. Meeting participants also addressed questions about safety, health and property values. The installation was completed in 30 days.
This article was written by Suzanne Hale, senior real estate representative, AirTouch Cellular, Atlanta.