Why is the Federal Communications Commission stifling the growth of rural broadband in rural Kansas?
As strange as it may seem, the same government agency that is tasked with ensuring that all Americans can connect to the world is pushing forward with a reform program that is having the exact opposite effect in many parts of rural America, including right here in western Kansas.
Sadly, this is another example of Washington being out of touch with the needs of everyday Americans.
Last year, the FCC made modifications to the Universal Service Fund, a program designed to help build rural telecommunications networks and ensure that service is available at affordable prices. The FCC promised these changes would expand broadband access. So far, they have had the opposite effect.
Even worse, while these reforms have been in place for only a few months, the FCC is considering additional changes, without any evaluation of whether the reforms are helping or hurting rural Kansas.
Last year, researchers at Wichita State University released a study that evaluated the economic impact of the FCC’s proposed reforms. Specifically, they found independent rural carriers in 104 of 105 Kansas counties would be forced “to dramatically change their operations.” The loss of $143 million in money from the fund could cause defaults on loans owed to the federal government and other lenders.
The report concludes that, “It is expected that Kansas (carriers) will, at minimum, cease operations in numerous highly rural communities across the state.”
Unfortunately, those predictions are proving to be accurate.
These changes and the looming threat of more to come make an already challenging job – offering quality, affordable broadband services in rural communities – even harder. The FCC’s actions penalize companies for investments already made, and make it difficult to decide how (or whether) to invest any more in network upgrades.
Consumers are already being affected as some companies are forced to raise rates to potentially unaffordable levels. Others are being forced to let employees go or cut back investments in infrastructure.
In some cases, several Kansas companies are already facing the possibility they may go bankrupt.
Kansas’ rural telecommunications companies are dedicated to delivering and upgrading broadband services, but a predictable support program is essential to achieve this goal. At Pioneer, we have been meeting this goal for more than 60 years. But, if we want to serve Kansans for 60 more, we need the FCC to set clear rules and provide sufficient support for the investments needed to continue to roll out advanced services.
Last week, Pioneer was one a one of 22 Kansas rural telecommunications companies that met with Ajit Pai, one of the FCC commissioners and a Kansas native. We expressed our concerns to him, but he is only one of five commissioners.
All five FCC commissioners need to hear that Kansans are concerned about the effects of reform on telecom services, on jobs, and on local economies. I urge every Kansan to join the Save Rural Broadband campaign by going to www.saveruralbroadband.org.
Our goal is to send thousands of letters to President Obama that urge him to press the FCC to change course and provide for a sustainable broadband future consistent with his goals of rural broadband deployment.
Without pressure, the FCC will continue on its current path – a path that threatens to leave rural Kansas behind.
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