Universal Service Funds & connecting schools to the Internet around the world

This page in:
maybe there's another way to support this?
maybe there's another way to support this?

We need to connect our schools to the Internet. While it may not (yet) be viable to do so in many countries, few education policymakers would question this general aspiration.

Of course, questions related to the speed and nature of this connection are being articulated and considered in different ways around the world, with answers determined by a mix of factors, including what is technologically feasible, what is pedagogically useful and, in the end, what is affordable. Calculations around what it may cost to connect schools to the Internet, and to keep them connected, in ways that are useful and relevant to learners and teachers (as well as to administrators and families), differ widely from place to place -- as do approaches on how to pay for these costs.

Over the past two decades, I have spent a lot of time helping to facilitate policy planning sessions with governments around issues related to technology use in education. Whether this work was part of efforts by the World Links program, linked to the use of the ICT in Education Toolkit supported by infoDev and UNESCO, or as part of more mainstream World Bank advisory activities, mechanisms and approaches by which countries can connect their schools to the Internet have always been a major area of discussion.

It may seem like a small thing, but one of the signature successes of many of these planning efforts wasn't the development of a related policy document outlining a vision and approach for how new technologies could and would be used to support a variety of education objectives. That was almost always the stated goal, but, as anyone who has worked in policymaking circles knows well, committing something to paper is no guarantee that what was drafted will ever actually be implemented -- nor that what's implemented will in the end have any beneficial impact 'on-the-ground'. No, in many cases the most important thing that happened in practice was to connect a diverse set of actors from outside the education sector together with the 'usual suspects' from within education ministries. The fact that you had, in the same room and at the same time, education officials sitting together with officials from the telecom authority, and the IT and finance ministries, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector -- often times we found that this was the first time ever that all of these groups had talked collectively about how they might work in coordination to help meet some of the shared goals that all of them had related to technology use and education.

One mechanism that is integral to initiatives to connect schools in some countries (and thus which features prominently in these sorts of planning discussions), but which is largely unknown in others (and thus doesn't feature at all), is the use of so-called Universal Service Funds to help pay for such efforts.

For those not familiar with the concept or practice:

Universal Service or Access Funds (which go by different names in different places) are, broadly speaking, a mechanism by which a national regulatory authority mandates, oversees and/or coordinates a set of subsidies and fees designed to promote access to telecommunication services for all of a country's population. The easiest way to think about this is that telecom companies, as a condition of their license to operate (of their use of wireless spectrum, etc.) are required to extend access to their services to places (e.g. quite rural or geographical isolated communities) and groups (especially low income and/or historically disadvantaged groups) where there may not be an immediate or compelling commercial incentive to do so. Traditionally, this has entailed things like running telephone lines out to remote villages and supporting telephone services which telecom companies might otherwise neglect to provide. Increasingly, the concept of 'universal service' is being expanded in many places to focus not (only) on hardwired landlines, but also on providing mobile and Internet connectivity as well. In some countries, schools have benefitted greatly from the use of these sorts of funds.

The most famous, and indeed the prototypical, example of how a 'universal service fund' has been used to connect schools to the Internet is the e-rate program in the United States. A consequence of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, the e-rate has over the course of almost twenty years helped to raise the number of schools with Internet connections from 14% to effectively 100% today.

A good many other countries have similar programs (some explicitly inspired by or modelled on the e-rate program). Portugal, Morocco, Colombia and Turkey are four noteworthy examples. In still other countries (as was the case in the Philippines under the GILAS initiative), private sector companies have banded together to do something similar as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts (whether this was done for altruistic or business reasons, or perhaps to preempt potential obligations that might come into effect should a Universal Service Law come into place, is an interesting discussion, but not one that will be explored here).

That said, in many developing countries, the responsibility for the funding and coordinating school connectivity is often left by default to the ministry of education -- which, frankly, is often ill-equipped to handle this responsibility, given that it typically has little or no funds available to support such efforts (nor, frankly, any experience or know-how in doing this sort of thing). The result: Very few schools are connected, and those that are connected are typically those in urban areas and/or which serve relatively affluent or privileged communities. (The connection itself may be rather poor as well -- a topic discussed in separate EduTech blog posts exploring answers to questions such as Broadband for schools? and How many schools are connected to the Internet?)

In such places, ministries of education may wish to consider the potential utility of so-called universal service funds (or things like them) to aid in their efforts to connect schools. Seen from one perspective, these would represent extra-budgetary, alternative sources of funding that are, at least from the perspective of educational policymakers, 'non-traditional'. Whether or not this mechanism is viable or relevant in a given country context is a determination best made locally. That said, in my experience, education ministries often don't have a strong voice on issues related to Internet provision within many countries, and so, even where such things are contemplated, discussions about the potential usage of universal service funds to help connect schools may proceed without much meaningful (indeed, without any) input from education officials.

This lack of voice on the part of the education sector is particularly unfortunate in cases where countries already have universal service funds but which aren't spending them. The GSMA, the international association which represents the interests of mobile phone operators worldwide, noted in its 2013 Universal Service Fund Study [pdf] that "Most universal service funds (USF) remain inefficient and ineffective. Together, the 64 USFs covered in this report contain more than USD 11 billion waiting to be disbursed. Of those funds studied, many have not disbursed any money. In fact, of those USFs where levies are currently being applied and collected, it is estimated that only 64% of these same USFs have carried out some level of disbursement or reported that some disbursements have been made. In other words, more than one third of the USFs in this study have yet to disburse any of the levies collected and very few funds, if any, would appear to disburse all that they collect."

Many telecom providers (and you can see their point) look at the large surpluses which have built up in some national universal service fund accounts and claim that these monies are effectively taxes on their operations which, because they are sitting unutilized, serve no useful purpose. Give the money back to us, they say, and we'll do useful things with it, including (possibly, to some extent) things like helping to connect schools. Now, whether or not this is something that the private sector in a given country will actually do, the fact that there are currently large amounts of money sitting unused in these sorts of accounts represents a big potential opportunity for ministries of education to help fund connectivity rollouts that they are currently unable to finance themselves. In places where existing universal service funds cannot currently be tapped to such ends because the rules and regulations in place currently do not permit such uses, considerations of expanding the potential for existing monies collected to help meet broader developmental objectives, including those in education, might be worth exploring. But if ministries of education and other key stakeholders in an education system (including those in civil society) don't advocate for the use of funds to such ends, they perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if such things don't happen. For governments which (for better, or for worse -- at least from the telecom industry's perspective) argue for the continued existence of universal service funds but which at the same time sit on large amounts of related untapped monies, engaging with the education sector may offer one 'solution' to their 'problem' in this regard.


While there is no comprehensive global study of how universal service funds are being currently utilized to support activities benefitting the education sector, a very useful report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2013, the Universal Service Fund and Digital Inclusion For All Study [pdf], does identify where the potential exists for such uses, given current laws and regulations, in many countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Jamaica, Lesotho, Mali, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe. That said, the report also notes that, in many cases, there is "low activity" related to "services currently authorized under the existing framework".


An argument could be made that the use of universal service funds is not the most appropriate way to finance activities in the education sector (some people may see this as 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' -- a criticism that can no doubt be levelled at many activities and practices supported by many governments around the world). And there is of course another, larger question related to whether such activities, where they are occurring, are having positive impacts (however one might wish to define such 'impacts').

But, for the time being, as universal service fund monies sit unused while huge numbers of schools remain unconnected, there may be an opportunity for many education systems to help kick start their plans to provide Internet connectivity to learners and teachers (or even possibly finance various projects to support so-called 1-to-1 educational computing efforts) at comparatively little cost to their own budgets. For that opportunity to be explored, however, someone has to first open the conversation.
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this post of a Romanesque statue in the Alsatian community of Rosheim ("maybe there's another way to support this?") comes from the Flickr user Marc Auer. Originally posted to Flickr, it was found via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000