Modern Broadband Innovation Should Be A Promise for All Americans

By former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)
Published first by The Hill

Growing up in a small farming town in North Dakota, I understand the challenge of bringing the latest and greatest communications technologies to the more rural parts of our nation. A generation ago, sparse population, high costs and rough terrain presented challenges for connecting small towns, farms and outlying areas to traditional telephone landlines. Today, we see many of the same barriers in deploying and operating robust, high-speed broadband networks.

But we don’t have a choice; we can’t leave rural areas behind. It can make all the difference for connecting classrooms to the best tech learning tools for our students, allowing students to do homework, fostering small businesses, furthering access to modern health care capabilities, or enabling entrepreneurs to access the Internet’s vast marketplace.

Congress understood the need to do this and created the Universal Service Fund (USF), a support mechanism designed to provide and sustain access to high-speed, affordable telecom services for as many Americans as possible, regardless of income or location. For decades, the USF program has worked, providing support to independent providers who, in turn, have brought the high-speed broadband—and the advantages that come with it—to users across rural America. 

A strong example of that is Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC). In the last year, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association honored PRTC as a recipient of the Smart Rural Community award, in recognition of its successful buildout of a fiber network in the Eastern coalfield region of Kentucky. It’s a region that has suffered from lack of jobs and industry investment over the years. But now, thanks to higher network speeds brought by PRTC, a once struggling area is seeing real improvement. Businesses are growing as they communicate better with vendors and customers; healthcare providers now have more, faster methods to treat patients; and local schools can incorporate technology into their curricula in new, creative ways.

More success stories like Kentucky’s PRTC are possible—if policymakers take the critical steps to ensure USF rules stay current and evolve in step with new and changing technologies. One issue we’re seeing today is rural consumers being denied a choice in their services because of outdated rules. For example, users are forced to pay for traditional landlines they may otherwise want to drop in order to access high-speed broadband. That makes no sense.

As the FCC and lawmakers look to reform USF, I hope they will show a commitment to service that is truly universal, by making smart updates that ensure rural Americans aren’t left behind. This should include preserving consumer choice, supporting sustainable networks and promoting reasonable rates. It makes sense to build on a system that has been working and to update it for the future. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or gamble on experiments that may undermine, rather than encourage, investments and ongoing operations in rural America.

For three decades in the U.S. Congress, I worked on many issues affecting rural America, but few are as important as making sure people in small towns like the one I grew up in have access to advanced telecommunications technology. The right action by the FCC can make that happen.

Dorgan served in the Senate from 1992 to 2011. He currently serves as a senior policy advisor at Arent Fox, LLP and consults for NTCA.