Colleges Face Astronomical Phone Bills
Educators propose bill to the FCC
April 10, 2006 12:03 AM
Colleges and universities could be forced to make drastic changes in availability of phone lines on campus.
The Federal Communications Commission proposed a plan that could increase telecommunication costs by 10 times or more.
The plan is being opposed by university organizations that say that the colleges and universities are being “unfairly assessed with exploding contribution requirements,” according to a letter sent to the FCC on behalf of the American Council on Education (ACE), Association of American Universities, and several other groups.
The FCC has held a principle of “universal service” for the last decade that provides telephone service for all Americans by passing on higher fees to paying customers. The Universal Service Fund benefits low-income Americans, as well as public libraries and schools.
However, the new FCC plan would switch to a numbers-based formula calculated on how many phone numbers are being used.The plan would charge businesses and organizations that use many phone numbers the most.
Since most colleges and universities provide phone numbers for students living on campus, staff and faculty, university phone bills could go up astronomically.
According to Dave Ostrom, the Chair of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, the FCC will not make a final decision on whether the new plan will go into effect until the Senate approves the one empty FCC commissioner position.
“I am quite optimistic that we (the higher education community) will make our case with the FCC and prevail,” Ostrom said.
Ostrom said that he expects the case will not be resolved until sometime this summer.
Even if the proposed plan goes through, colleges and universities have some ways of avoiding budget-crippling phone bills.
A major focus will be on-campus residence halls where each room often has its own phone line. With the prevalence of cell phones among college students, these landlines have become much less used. An option to reduce costs would be to have one single phone in the hallway of each floor, according to
Ostrom said that one drawback with this plan is international students who may not be able to get a cell phone without an American credit card will have less access to phones.
Taryn Hinschberger, a freshman English major who lives in the dorms on campus, said she has never even plugged in her university-provided phone and has no idea what the phone number is.
“I only use my cell phone, especially to call back home (to Southern California),” Hinschberger said. “It just makes sense because I have free long distance and free mobile-to-mobile minutes with my family.”
However, Hinschberger said that phones in the dorms must be in use since she hears them ring in other rooms quite often.
Another major concern of limiting the number of phones is student safety. It is difficult for 911 operators to locate calls from cell phones, especially with high altitude calls, such as those in multi-level student dorm buildings, Ostrom said.
According to Ostrom, campuses may also change the phone service for faculty as well. At SF State, faculty members have their own office number, as well as private cell phones.
One option to eliminate extra phone numbers is to adopt an “auto-attendant” voicemail system that would have one primary number for a department and then extensions for individual faculty and staff members.
According to Jonathan Rood, the associate vice president for information technology at SF State, the IT department is waiting for the final decision by the FCC before setting a concrete plan on how phone service will change on campus. However, Rood is also optimistic that the FCC will realize that universities should be given a break.
“Because of groups like the ACE intervening, I think the universities have a good case,” Rood said. “We are not like other big businesses with thousands of employees. Safeway or Home Depot doesn’t need to provide a phone number for every single warehouse worker or cashier, but our faculty members need phone lines. We are in the business of communication.”
SF State does not yet have a plan on limiting phones available to students who live on campus, even with the prevalence of cell phones.
“Cell phones are not completely reliable,” Rood said. “They can have network outages and dead batteries, and we need to make sure everyone is safe and protected.”
According to Clara Potes-Fellow, director of media relations for the California State University System, there has not yet been a discussion of this issue within the Board of Trustees. The CSU will begin discussing a system-wide plan after the FCC has made final announcements of the new fees.
According to the letter sent by the ACE to the FCC, aside from the communication restrictions and safety concerns that arise with higher phone bills, the increased costs could drastically impair university abilities to upgrade their telecommunications systems and provide the most modern technology for their students and faculty.
“Telecommunications services form an essential part of institutions of higher learning,” David Ward, president of the ACE, wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Telephones and data connections link students to each other, to their professors, to the college itself, and to their families.”
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