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Dorgan: FCC Should Modify Rule Unfair to Rural America

Last year’s news from Washington, D.C., was dominated by gridlock and rancid partisanship in Congress. Little was accomplished, and the American people lost faith that Congress can make the needed decisions to improve people’s lives.

In addition to being upset with Congress, other agencies in government were making decisions that have people concerned about their future.

One of those big decisions is a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that will determine who will and who won’t have access to high-speed connections to the Internet in the years ahead. In short, it will have a big effect on which areas of the country will move ahead and which will be left behind.

The way it now stands, the decision threatens to undermine the economic future of people and businesses living and working in some of the most rural areas of America. Those family farmers and people who live there are not going to accept it without a fight.

This isn’t some inconsequential disagreement. It’s about whether people in rural America will have the same opportunities in telecommunications that are available to other Americans.

Will they be able to take advantage of things such as distance learning in education, energy savings through smart grid technology, video conferencing or health care monitoring online? That’s not likely to happen under the current FCC plans.

This current rule-making was designed by the FCC to implement a new program called the Connect America Fund. It is supposed to connect more of our country with advanced telecommunications services. That makes good sense to me. There are still millions of Americans, especially in rural areas, with either no access or slow access to the Internet. They are the ones who are being left behind in this new age of telecommunications.

But there is a serious problem with the new FCC rule. It doesn’t advance broadband service everywhere. I don’t see a plan for rural America.

Further, these rules are likely to cause even bigger problems for the current customers of the small, rural telecoms that now provide services to the most rural areas.

For many decades our government has been committed to the concept of “universal service.” That means affordable telecommunications services should be available no matter where you live. In fact, that principle of universal service exists in federal law. It provides that you should receive comparable service at an affordable price even if you live in high-cost or rural areas.

That policy has been funded with money from the Universal Service Fund. The FCC ruling will change that. The FCC will now use the USF to build out high-speed Internet service.

But there is nothing in the FCC plan that describes how it will build out high-speed service to rural areas after it has taken away the part of the USF that is needed to serve rural areas.

In addition, the FCC rule also hurts those rural telecom companies that have already built the infrastructure to serve their rural customers.

Under this new plan, there is no assurance that they’ll have the USF money to support their current system, let alone build new capacity for rural areas. That will dry up investment in new construction and system improvements in rural telecommunication services. And it means lost jobs and the failure of some small and rural telecom companies under this plan.

It’s not too late to insist that the FCC clarify and modify its new broadband policy to fix these problems.

The economic future of America’s rural areas is at stake with this ruling. Aside from the fact that it is unfair to people living in small towns and on family farms, it’s in our national interest to do the right thing here. We need all Americans connected if our country is going to successfully compete in the new global competition.

The FCC should modify this ruling and stand behind our country’s long successful principle (and this administration’s commitment) that our nation can’t move ahead by leaving some behind.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is now teaching, consulting and writing, and he consults with rural telephone interests on telecommunications issues.

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