Monday, March 28, 2011

Understanding--and Advocating--the Importance of Rural America and Getting USF Reform Right

As I reflect back on last week's NTCA Legislative & Policy Conference, there are a couple of issues that have really stuck with me as particularly noteworthy. The first, inspired by the speech given by Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture and former Governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack, is that rural America is not widely understood by lawmakers (or by anyone who isn't actually from a rural area for that matter). The important role that rural America plays in the nation's economy, culture and national security is often overlooked; therefore it is of critical importance that we do our best to educate decision makers in the government about our communities, small businesses, economic potential, and quality of life in rural America. The second thought that has stuck with me from the conference is that the highly fragmented rural telecommunications industry--consisting of hundreds of companies across the country ranging in corporate structure and sized from a few hundred customers to over one hundred thousand--is firmly united regarding the challenges our industry faces in the upcoming Universal Service Fund reforms set forth in the Connect America Fund/National Broadband Plan NPRM (also called USF Reform NPRM). This united front is unprecedented, at least in the years that I have been involved in rural telecommunications. During our visits to Iowa Congressional staff, members of the Iowa group stressed how the USF Reform issues take priority over all of the other issues the industry is facing right now--net neutrality, data roaming, reverse auctions, etc.--and our concerns demand the attention from lawmakers who support and understand the importance of rural America and delivering high speed broadband to rural Americans.

Although today I am going to focus more on the first issue--understanding the importance of rural America--these two issues are indeed intertwined. Without continual and predictable USF support for small telecommunications providers, rural Americans will not continue to enjoy the vast benefits of advanced telecommunications services that these companies have worked so hard to deliver to their communities. Without access to advanced telecommunications services, rural America will not flourish, it will not become an attractive place for families and businesses to live and work in, and educational and health care goals for rural areas will not be achieved. Although the proposed Connect America Fund promises to increase broadband availability and adoption in rural areas (which is good), the concern is that the funding mechanisms that have supported small rural telecom providers for many years will be transitioned to support for "market incentive" based funding mechanisms targeted at larger price-cap carriers. Large broadband providers may have the money and economies of scale, but they are not well equipped to provide telecom services to small communities in deeply rural areas, and they have traditionally ignored these areas in favor of investing in densely populated--and therefore profitable--geographic areas.

As a city dweller with deeply rural roots, I constantly find myself missing things like clean air, dark nights, and not hearing ambulance sirens every 15 minutes. I also find myself spending way too much time thinking about where my food comes from and how I can find and recapture the flavors of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats that travel about 50 feet from source to table instead of across the country or world (fun fact: I am also a raging advocate for organic, non-GMO, natural, locally grown, raw and unprocessed foods). The obvious solution would probably be for me to pack up and leave K Street and return to the farm, but that type of decision is clearly difficult, and in the end I don't think I would be willing to give up my city life. Without digressing even further into minutia about my personal life, I will say the rural vs. urban life debate has been an ongoing source of internal conflict for me for several years, and probably will be until I become successful enough to own two properties on diametrically opposite positions along the rural-urban spectrum.

Anyway, back to the point: many people do not understand the importance and value of rural America because they have never experienced it nor do they want to experience and learn about it. It literally astonishing to me when I hear that children do not know where food comes from or know the difference between an onion and a potato, but I also don't expect everyone to flee cities and become farmers for a few days just to learn about food sources (even though that would be really great). What I do expect is for lawmakers to attempt to understand the importance of small businesses in rural communities, and to craft laws and regulations that reflect this tautology. Vilsack's speech made me think about how the misunderstanding of rural America impacts the FCC rulemaking process, and the regulatory treatment of rural providers in particular. Rural telecom providers are welcome to submit comments and set up ex parte meetings during FCC rulemakings and visit members of Congress to communicate our concerns, but rural telecom providers do not have hundreds of highly paid lobbyists nor do they contribute tens of millions of dollars to political campaigns (I'm talking about you, AT&T!), so I have to question the impact that our voice makes even though the processes in the FCC and Congress are *supposed* to be open and unbiased.

What needs to happen in order for law and policy makers to gain a better understanding about rural America? During the NTCA conference and hill visits, I learned that it is really beneficial to inform the decision makers exactly how proposed laws and policies will directly impact rural communities. Do not just tell them "This policy will be bad for my company and community." Tell them exactly why--in terms of job loss, financial instability, community hardship, etc. It also helps to vividly describe the benefits that rural telecom providers have bestowed on their communities in terms of improved education and health care, new businesses in the communities, local economic growth, community culture and arts, and increased population. Rural telecom companies do not just care about profit--they actually care about the communities that they serve and have a significant stake in seeing their communities flourish in the future as a result of their investments in broadband and other advanced telecom services. Congress and the FCC need to understand the vital role that rural telecom providers play in their communities, and the corresponding vital influence that rural communities have on rural telecom providers.

The book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel Kotkin (2010) depicts the U.S. with a population of 400 million people--which is expected to occur within most of our lifetimes. Kotkin believes that there will be a "resettling of the American Heartland;" as cities become too crowded and environmentally uncomfortable--the wide open spaces of rural America will become more and more attractive for families and businesses. It may be difficult to see this now, with rural communities suffering from aging and declining populations, but I firmly believe that broadband can help change this outlook on the future of rural communities. With state-of-the-art broadband infrastructure in place coupled with opportunities for property ownership and entrepreneurialism, rural America can easily experience a surge of revitalization in the upcoming decades. Kotkin is optimistic about the power of rural America as the nation's population grows: "According to recent surveys, as many as one in three American adults would prefer to live in a rural area--compared with the 20-odd percent who actually do. Most Americans perceive rural America as epitomizing traditional values of family, religion, and self-sufficiency and as being more attractive, friendly and safe, particularly for children" (Kotkin, 2010). Kotkin acknowledges that the Internet has broken the perspective of rural areas as isolated, culturally deficient and not profitable for businesses. Furthermore, we are already starting to see major technology and manufacturing businesses move to rural areas to take advantage of everything from cheap real estate to prime weather conditions (such as computer server farms in states like North Dakota). Broadband infrastructure in rural areas brings new businesses which bring new residents, families, cultures, ideologies and economic growth to rural areas, and this is why it is so critically important that lawmakers "get it right" when it comes to USF reform. There is a ripple effect from small communities to state economies and ultimately the national economy that literally starts with rural telecom providers being able to continue offering reasonably comparable broadband in rural areas with sufficient and predictable subsidies. Take these subsidies away from small telecom companies, and the national economy will feel the aftershock eventually.

Cassandra Heyne 

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