House panel pushes on for communications law update

The House committee looking to overhaul the nation’s rules for phone, Internet and other communications tools is pressing full steam ahead.

The Energy and Commerce Committee released its fifth white paper on Friday, explaining the federal fund set up to bring telecommunications technologies to poor and rural Americans and asking for feedback on how to improve it.

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“The Universal Service Fund was established to ensure that telecommunications services are available and accessible to students, low-income consumers and rural Americans,” committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), head of the communications subcommittee, said in a statement. ”As technologies have been improved and networks upgraded, we have a responsibility to review the program to find out if the fund is still serving its purpose and if there may be better ways to accomplish its goals.”

The fund, which is managed by the Federal Communications Commission, costs about $8 billion per year and is funded through charges on people’s phone bills.

Portions of the money go to subsidize phone service for poor and Native American people, bring Internet access to schools and libraries, connect rural areas to the Web and hook up healthcare centers to the latest communications technologies.

The committee’s look at the Universal Service Fund is part of its broader attempt to rewrite the Telecommunications Act, the landmark 1996 law laying out rules for communications companies. The panel has been analyzing the existing law all year long, with an eye toward writing a replacement in coming years.