Originally created 02/19/03

Phone fee increase will assist schools



Want to support your local schools? Make a long-distance cell phone call.

Beginning April 1, the federal "universal service" fee that appears on all telephone bills will double for most wireless customers.

The fee - which helps subsidize communication services for rural areas, low-income consumers and schools - will rise from 55 cents to $1.04 for consumers with a typical $50-a-month plan.

The Universal Service Fund, established in 1998, helps schools and libraries through a program called E-Rate. Last year, for example, Richmond County schools received $1.2 million and the East Central Georgia Regional Library received $14,800 in E-Rate money.

Richmond County schools use the money to pay for phones, Internet access, computer servers and other networking tools.

"It's really benefited us tremendously," said Carol Taylor, the director of media education and technology for the Board of Education.

Although the Federal Communication Commission's reforms will raise fees for wireless customers, many consumers making interstate long-distance calls via regular phones will see a decrease because long-distance companies, which now can charge whatever they want, will be limited to charging only the 7.28 percent they are required to put into the fund by the FCC.

Many long-distance companies charge fees higher than 7.28 percent and pocket the difference, including AT&T, which charges 11.5 percent, and MCI, which charges 10.5 percent. BellSouth, which was recently approved to enter the long-distance business, charges up to 8.5 percent.

Companies do not disclose how much money in universal service fees they collect from specific geographic areas for competitive reasons.

"It's not for public consumption," said Stan Shepard, BellSouth's Augusta regional manager. "(BellSouth) considers it proprietary information."

The fund is administered by the Universal Service Administration Co., a nonprofit corporation hired by the government.

The company reviews E-Rate funding applications from communities and makes its decisions based on the number of pupils in a county that are part of the federal school lunch program, said Mel Blackwell, the company's vice president for external communications.

Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or at jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.