UNIVERSAL SERVICE ATTRACTS MUCH ATTENTION these days, both in energy and telecommunications. But how do you measure success? Do regulators decide when goals are met by looking across an industry, or should management make the call company by company?
Consider the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It identifies the maintenance of affordable, or "universal," service for low-income consumers as an explicit statutory goal. In the electric industry, virtually every piece of restructuring legislation and every regulatory decision to date has included a universal service provision.
Yet while setting a goal of universal service is easy to do in principle, it is much more difficult in practice. For instance, the concepts of universal service and affordability are often confused. Promoting universal service is an end; promoting affordable service is the means to that end. The terms are not synonymous.
The biggest problem by far comes in measuring whether the programs will actually promote universal service.
Where is the infrastructure (intellectual, data collection, or evaluation) to assess whether such programs are or will be effective? Legislation and regulation on electric restructuring in states such as California, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have established programs to promote and maintain universal service without establishing any mechanism to measure the programs' success. Five years from now, it will be impossible to answer the question: "Are we better off today because of these programs?"
What is needed is a set of data that allows policymakers to review not that x amount of money has been spent, or that y number of low-income customers have been reached, but that certain performance goals have been achieved.