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Time to Update Universal Service for Rural Telecoms

By Shirley Bloomfield As times change, it’s important that rules governing technology keep pace. While existing laws may contain timeless principles, if the regulations governing those principles do not evolve over time, they may begin to hinder progress.  

When it comes to providing access to high-quality telecommunications services to rural Americans, inaction in Washington has done just that: regulations written for the telephone era are governing a rapidly-evolving tech sector. And it’s time for a change.  

The Universal Service Fund, established in 1934 and updated in 1996, is a vital program based on the idea that affordable telecommunications services should be available to as many Americans as possible, regardless of their income or where they live. It’s important to build upon existing, proven mechanisms where we can, and the existing USF programs have done a good job in helping rural America get and stay connected.  

Over the years, the USF has had a profound effect on consumers living in sparsely-populated areas where, unlike in a big city, it’s more difficult for telecom providers to serve customers at reasonable costs. Because of the USF and other complementary federal programs that provide loans and grants to independent technology solution providers spread across rural America, populations in some of our country’s farthest reaches have access to high-speed broadband, opening up endless opportunities for personal and professional advancement. Now, however, we need to make sure that those rules stay current to ensure the timeless principles behind them will continue to be served as technology evolves.  

This is about giving rural consumers — from every corner of the country — the freedom to choose the advanced broadband communications they want, need, and deserve from their provider. Today, rural consumers are being denied these choices because universal service rules force them to select services they may not want anymore (e.g. traditional landline telephones) in order to access services those consumers do want (e.g. high-speed broadband at an affordable rate).  

Consumers should absolutely have the right to buy traditional telephone services if they want them, but they shouldn’t be forced to buy traditional telephone services just to get affordable broadband. That’s what we’re working with lawmakers and regulators to change.  

To help reach a solution, NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association is working with the FCC and lawmakers to update the rules in a targeted way so rural America can enjoy a sufficient support system for broadband. Our goal is to see a solution that promotes reasonable rates, supports sustainable networks, and stands the test of time, providing consumers with choices.  

In fact, 61 lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, led by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and 115 in the House, led by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., recently co-signed letters to FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler urging the commission to modernize USF by making these kinds of targeted reforms a reality. It’s the second year in a row that more than 100 of our nation’s elected officials have joined in this bipartisan message of sustaining and updating critical cost recovery mechanisms like the USF, rather than cutting or capping or leaving them tied to outdated rules.  

Technology will continue to evolve; but one thing that won’t change is the difficulty of supplying consumers in rural America with choice, affordability, and access to advanced telecommunications products. The nearly 900 independent, community-based telecommunications companies NTCA represents — some which have been in business for more than a century — have shown their commitment to delivering the broadband future for rural America. Now it’s policymakers’ turn to act.  

Shirley Bloomfield is the CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.

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