Broadband tax plan revived in Senate

Scarcely a half day into the 110th Congress's inaugural session, a proposal has resurfaced to collect fees from all communications service providers--including broadband and voice over Internet protocol--in order to subsidize telephone and Internet services in rural and other "high cost" areas, schools and libraries.

Sen. Ted Stevens on Thursday introduced the Universal Service for Americans Act, whose name comes from the multibillion-dollar Universal Service Fund. Supporters say that pool of money has dwindled over the past few years because it depends on contributions from long-distance revenues, which no longer compose as significant a portion of Americans' telephone bills.

The bill reflects ongoing calls from some politicians and federal regulators to make the USF contribution scheme "technology neutral" in hopes of making up for perceived shortfalls in the fund.

That set-up, should it pass, could mean new fees tacked onto consumers' Internet access bills. The Federal Communications Commission last summer already extended the requirement to Internet phone providers, which the VoIP industry estimated would result in as much as $2.12 extra on a $30 monthly bill.

A copy of the bill's text was not immediately available, but an aide to the Alaska Republican, who had been serving as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee until the Democratic power shift, said the measure is nearly identical to a section of a sweeping communications bill that died last year in part because of disagreements over its Net neutrality provisions.

"The bill will ensure that schools, libraries and health clinics in rural Alaska and the rest of the nation continue to receive universal service funds on a timely basis," Stevens said in a statement. It would also set aside up to $500 million specifically for subsidizing broadband services.

An aide to incoming Senate Commerce Committee Daniel Inouye said the Hawaii Democrat hadn't decided whether he would be co-sponsoring the measure, although he has been a supporter of the USF in the past. It's "not necessarily indicative of the priorities of the majority," said spokeswoman Teri Rucker. "But, of course, we are interested in our members' ideas and will consider what they offer."

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