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Telecom Universal Service Funds

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Have USFs been successful? The answer to this vexatious question begs another: how is success defined in the first place? At one level, USOF act a as a funding project to spur development in remote and affected poor areas. At another, it seeks to integrate the country’s cut off areas, by providing mobile connectivity. Once a Fund seizes an active role of initiating social change, the concept of Universal Service Funds really comes alive.

USFs are part of the telecom landscape in an increasing number of countries today.

In practice, USFs in different countries end up taking many different forms and personalities, on account of the state of development of telecom in the country, its particular regulatory environment and profile, how broadly Universal Service is defined, and the management structure of the Fund.

The world over, there are many Funds that are not very active. Some of this maybe on account of narrowly structured Funds and regulations, but some are Funds that have accumulated substantial funds but haven’t utilized them. Naturally, such scenarios invite criticisms, sometimes questioning even the concept, though of course, that’s taking it too far.

In many cases, Universal Service is defined rather narrowly, and even broadband connectivity, which is today sometimes considered one of the most important human needs, is not included. Similarly, specially disadvantaged segments are rarely included as beneficiaries, and even then, it’s more a case of lip service than tangible programs.

Though success of a Fund is usually measured in terms of the funds it has raised, another way of sizing up a Fund is to see how attuned it is to social realities and needs, and whether it actively sees itself as an instrument of social change.

One particular case where a Fund has been acting like one rather successfully, is India’s USOF. Not only is the Fund flexible in terms of including broadband and extremely articulate in terms of application of funds, it has also embarked upon specific projects that make for digital inclusion at many levels.

At one level, USOF is funding a project to spur development in remote and poor areas affected by Left-Wing Extremism by providing mobile connectivity through solar-powered mobile towers and base stations. At another, it seeks to integrate the country’s North Eastern Region, traditionally cut off from the mainstream, by providing, again, mobile connectivity. And finally, it seeks to fund an ambitious program to provide broadband connectivity upto the block (Gram Panchayat) level, thereby connecting India’s hinterland of villages.

Once a Fund seizes an active role of initiating social change, the concept of Universal Service Funds really comes alive. In such a scenario, the more funds it can gather and spend, the more meaningful its existence.

That, surely, justifies the whole idea of Universal Service Funds!

Read about application of the USF Case Study here.



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