Despite the still icy streets of Washington, D.C., and a delayed government opening this morning, the FCC discussed the latest Broadband Progress Report during the January open meeting this afternoon.
As we near the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Telecom Act of 1996, the words at the heart of the universal service codification come home to me. As decreed by law, there should be reasonably comparable services at reasonably comparable rates in rural and urban America. Those words were hard fought and sweetly won on behalf of rural Americans. Members of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association know firsthand how very difficult, challenging and expensive it is to deploy and sustain rural broadband in their territories, and they understand better than anyone that this national goal of broadband deployment is not something that can be achieved quickly or easily—it takes a great deal of commitment over the long haul.
But as long as we have universal service programs that are explicitly built and funded only to achieve lower levels of service in rural America as compared to urban areas, we only risk falling further and further behind over time in meeting that national goal. We sincerely look forward to working with the FCC to put the high-cost universal service programs back on track to ensure true reasonable comparability as required by law. Plain and simple, we all need to stop accepting a separate, lesser standard for the goal of acceptable broadband in rural areas. Commissioner Pai said it so well in his statement today when he pondered on what he considered to be the fundamental question in the report: Has the Section 706 test been met? His analysis was that the standard set forth by Congress is not being met. Rural America is being left behind.
I remain hopeful that our constructive discussions with the FCC will continue and that we can find a path forward that will give encouragement to carriers to continue their quest to bring broadband services to those still waiting and ensure that networks are maintained to keep bringing services to those who have it.
On a separate but related note, I had the opportunity to catch up with RUS Administrator Brandon McBride today and share some of the priorities his agency has in place for the year ahead and the important critical infrastructure role that RUS will continue to play in building rural broadband networks. We need to ensure that anything happening on the regulatory front not negatively impact rural carriers’ ability to borrow from RUS and that the existing RUS loan portfolio remain secure. However, I did have to laugh a little bit about the new joint venture between USDA and EPA on a new program they rolled out called Cool and Connected. Sounds like a really interesting combination of our “Rural Is Cool” campaign and Smart Rural Communities to me! However, the more to the “party to empower rural America” the better, so we’re looking forward to working more with both agencies on that initiative as well.