Universal service is defined as “the principle that all Americans should have access to communications services”1. The Universal Service Fund (USF) is a fund that was developed to help uphold this principle. The USF is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
Universal service was first identified in the Communications Act of 1934. In that era, telephone service was identified as a universal service and the FCC was charged with making that service available to all Americans. In an update of the Communications Act of 1934, called the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the USF was officially created to help fund the effort to make telephone services available to all Americans.
The major goals of universal service—detailed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996—were to:
- Make quality services available to all Americans at affordable rates.
- Make advanced telecommunication services accessible across all 50 states.
- Provide high quality telecommunication services to all Americans, including those in low income, rural and high cost areas.
- Provide these high quality services at rates that are comparable to those in urban areas.
- Give increased access to advanced communications in schools, libraries and rural health care facilities.
- Establish equal contributions to the USF by all communication service providers, to continue to fund universal service efforts.
The Universal Service Fund (USF) is one fund with four programs. The four programs are:
Connect America Fund (formerly High-Cost Support fund): a program designed to ensure citizens in all areas of the United States have access to communications services, and pay rates that are comparable to prices in urban areas. Read more about this program here.
Lifeline: a program that provides discounts on telephone services so that it is affordable for low-income citizens. The program is divided into the Link-Up America and Lifeline programs. Click here to learn more about this program.
Schools and Libraries (E-rate): a program that provides funds for schools and libraries to make Internet access, telecommunications services and internal communication tools available. Learn more about the E-rate program here.
Rural Health Care: a program that provides funding to rural hospitals to invest in high-speed Internet access and video conferencing tools to connect with larger hospitals at affordable rates. This is commonly referred to as “tele-health” and “tele-medicine.” Read more about this program here.
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the term universal service has broadened to include other communication tools, including high-speed Internet access. To read more about the Universal Service Fund, visit the FCC website at http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/universal-service.