Update on the 2013 Policy Plan

In the wake of a terrific Legislative & Policy (L&P) Conference last week, I wanted to take a step back and talk about our policy plan for 2013—what it is and how we’re doing on it. The core objectives in that plan drive everything that NTCA staff does, with every possible initiative, meeting, “ask,” letter or filing viewed through the prism of, “What does this do to move the ball forward?” I provided an overview at the L&P Conference, and I’ve done the same at a number of state association meetings and other events over the past several months. At the L&P conference, however, I had so many people indicate that the overview helped in “connecting the dots” between various efforts that I thought it might make sense to share it a bit more broadly.

The core objectives of our policy plan haven’t changed significantly since 2012, but they’ve evolved as time marches on and developments transpire. For example, our two primary themes remain essentially the same. We need to: (1) create regulatory certainty; and (2) build a broadband future. By contrast, in 2010 and 2011, those themes were “restoring” regulatory certainty and “saving” rural broadband. Starting in 2012, we realized that “restoring” and “saving” were too rooted in the past, as if we wanted to “put things back the way they were” rather than evolve into something bigger and better. It struck us that just as telcos are innovators in their communities—you’re so much more than telephone companies now—we needed our policy plan to look and speak to the future as well. Moreover, “restoring” and “saving” simply aren’t enough. The fact is that the regulatory fabric was already fraying and needed updating beyond mere “restoration,” and just “saving” rural broadband is insufficient given that you need to keep upgrading your networks to meet consumer demands and remain reasonably comparable.

Our plan therefore focuses now on “creating” regulatory certainty through clear rules of the road for a 21st century communications market that relies upon long-term investments, and “building” future-proof rural broadband rather than merely preserving what is in place. Within these two core objectives, we then have four primary asks that NTCA staff tries to keep in mind at each turn, whether it’s in FCC meetings and filings, congressional visits, court pleadings, outreach efforts or anything else where we interact with folks who can make a difference for rural broadband.

To digress for a minute, however, before I get to our primary asks, we all have to realize that no single meeting or filing is going to change the world. As I mentioned to our attendees at the L&P Conference, Washington is a town where stalemate is the rule and incremental progress is the exception. So anyone who promises you that a piece of legislation or a rule change is going to solve things in short order isn’t being straight with you. Instead, it takes a lot of hard work a step at a time to turn things in the right direction. It takes the work of the 500 people who showed up for the L&P Conference; the efforts of the NTCA Board and committee members who shape our policy initiatives through frequent calls and meetings; or the work of people like Brent Christensen of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance who popped quickly into D.C. to see his delegation last week and then hopped a plane right back to Minnesota to show policymakers the challenges that rural telcos face out in the field in serving small businesses.

So that brings me back to our four primary asks that drive this hard work:

  1. Get any caps right (part of the “create regulatory certainty” theme).
  2. Shelve the further notice of proposed rulemaking (part of the “create regulatory certainty” theme).
  3. Fix the waiver process (part of the “create regulatory certainty” theme).
  4. Create a Connect America Fund for small rural carriers (the “build a broadband future” theme).

I won’t go into all of the various ways in which we’re pursuing each of these efforts, but suffice to say that we try to tie every policy-oriented step we take as your association staff back to these requirements. From the 100-plus FCC meetings that led up to the sixth reconsideration order on regression analysis caps to the 100 more that it might take to get a “seventh reconsideration order,” and from taking a lead in the court appeals to taking rural telco representatives all over Washington this week to talk about standalone broadband funding, Safety Net Additive, and the need for a thoughtful and independent look at the effects thus far of the FCC’s reforms before more changes are made, every initiative ties back to these four primary asks and our two primary themes.

And while sometimes certain initiatives may look small—”why are you just asking for this or that tweak, rather than trying to get the whole thing thrown out?”—the fact is that we’re doing both and more. NTCA filed two petitions for stay of various rules, and we’re very active in the appeals and reconsideration efforts regarding the November 2011 order. We’ve taken your case to the highest levels of the executive branch and to legislative leadership too. But it would be a serious strategic error and a disservice to our members to put all of our eggs in one basket and assume entire parts of the order will be thrown out or changed wholesale if we just yell louder. Instead, we have to undertake the day-to-day efforts to get things done the right way a step at a time and view incremental steps as “building blocks,” even as we also pursue every possible avenue for broader and more significant change.

Fortunately, we can see some progress, even if just incremental, from these efforts. A sitting FCC commissioner came to NTCA’s L&P Conference last week and spoke about the need for a Connect America Fund for small rural carriers. While hardly perfect and containing some concerning rhetoric, the sixth reconsideration order also saved over 100 carriers from millions of dollars in USF losses on investments made years ago. We’ve seen some rationalization of reporting requirements and the waiver standards, and we’re fighting for more in filings just as recently as last week. It’s not perfect and it’s not enough by any stretch to achieve true universal service  but it’s better than where things stood in November 2011—and certainly better than things looked back when the National Broadband Plan came out. And the key is to keep at it every day, a day at a time, until your consumers are better off than they were or ever have been—when they can participate fully in a broadband future that gives them reasonably comparable access to reasonably comparable services based upon a system that gives you, as carriers of last resort in the hardest-to-serve areas, sufficient and predictable support for long-term investments in cutting-edge networks.

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