FCC Commissioner, Members of Congress Address 2013 Legislative & Policy Conference
More than 500 members of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association gathered in Washington this week to participate in the association's annual Legislative & Policy Conference and hundreds of meetings with members of Congress and other policymakers.
Conference participants heard from officials with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and members of Congress before heading to Capitol Hill.
Speaking during the conference's opening day at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said uncertainty surrounding small carriers' ongoing investment in rural networks has created an opportunity for the commission to consider a dedicated broadband support mechanism for rural Americans.
"It's time for the commission to start moving forward with a Connect America Fund for rate-of-return carriers," Pai said. "This step would recognize that line loss in rural America is real and that direct support for broadband-capable facilities, within the budget established by the [Universal Service Fund] Transformation Order, is critical."
Acting RUS Administrator John Padalino urged conference attendees to show members of Congress how their rural communities provide jobs and resources to urban areas and referenced the Obama administration's efforts to demonstrate how "a strong rural America leads to a stronger America" through Recovery Act loans and grants responsible for more than 40,000 miles of fiber infrastructure.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R–Neb.) and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R–Mo.) told conference attendees that Congress can do more to ensure that broadband support programs like the FCC's Connect America Fund are operating effectively and providing independent telecommunications providers the certainty and predictability they need to continue serving rural communities. Fischer and Sen. Mark Begich (D–Alaska) introduced bipartisan legislation this week seeking greater analysis of the commission's 2011 Universal Service Fund (USF) reforms limiting support for some rural providers. The bill (S. 774) directs the U.S. Government Accountability Office to issue a report by year-end on the effectiveness of the USF reforms, including any effects the changes have had on broadband rates and speeds.
Luetkemeyer vowed to continue working with rural telecom providers to provide oversight of federal agencies like the FCC and urged conference attendees to demonstrate to lawmakers how "the rural way of life works."
Conference attendees also heard from NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield, who outlined the association's strategy to continue seeking incremental improvements in rural broadband policy. APCO President Terry Hall discussed the federal government's efforts to create a nationwide broadband network for public safety communications. And a panel of NTCA members shared their perspectives on policy initiatives at the state and national levels. The panel included Greg Hale, general manager and executive vice president of Logan Telephone Cooperative (Auburn, Ky.); Ronald Laudner, president and chief executive officer of OmniTel Communications (Nora Springs, Iowa); Chris Schroeder, chief executive officer and managing partner of TCA (Colorado Springs, Colo.); and Brian Boisvert, chief executive officer and general manager of Wilson Communications (Wilson, Kan.).
Finally, NTCA Senior Vice President of Policy Michael Romano provided an overview of recent activity at the FCC and outlined the association's advocacy goals. Director of Communications Wendy Mann discussed the association's communications strategy, including advertising in the Captiol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. And NTCA Vice President of Government Affairs Tom Wacker rounded out the program with a reminder about ethics rules and some tips for meeting with members of Congress.
The conference wrapped up Tuesday with a fundraiser for NTCA's political action committee, Telecommunications Education Committee Organization (TECO).