Opinions vary on public safety fee

Two consumer groups diverge on $1 monthly fee on every broadband user

Reactions to a proposed public safety fee on every broadband user in America vary, from support by the Consumer Federation of America to opposition by another consumer group, Free Press.

Several wireless carriers are evaluating the proposed monthly fee of up to $1 per user in the National Broadband Plan, which would be used to support a $16 billion interoperable, nationwide wireless network for use by emergency responders.

The CTIA, which represents a broad array of wireless carriers and Internet service providers, said today that it is not planning to take a position on the fee and made no further comment.

Carriers are apparently torn about the proposal. In general, carriers have not favored new fees, but they are expected to support the plan's call to auction so-called D-block radio spectrum for private entities, which would share the spectrum for use with the proposed emergency network.

While the fee is called "minimal" in the plan, an FCC spokesman said it could be as high as $1 per user, although some officials familiar with talks on the matter have said it might be closer to 50 cents. Those officials also said it will probably be levied in addition to fees of 70 cents to $1.50 per month paid to counties and states by phone users to support emergency 911 services.

"A well-designed public safety fee makes a lot of sense," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "The Consumer Federation recognizes the public interest obligations of a broadband network."

Cooper said the proposed fee is minimal enough that most customers could afford it in return for an interoperable emergency wireless network. "Most broadband users are not so price-sensitive that it would matter," he said.

However, the consumer group Free Press criticized the proposed fee. Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, said a national priority like a public safety network should be "funded out of the national treasury and not out of regressive fees."

He added: "While we strongly believe a robust interoperable public safety network should be a national priority, we think the idea to hit broadband users with a fee to support this network is misguided. ... The National Broadband Plan is supposed to increase adoption among the ... communities that don't see the value in broadband, but hiking up the monthly price with these below-the-line fees will result in lower adoption. Like other aspects of the plan, this idea may be appealing on paper but is bad policy in practice."

Congress must grant the FCC the authority to impose the fee.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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