Will the FCC stay committed to rural America?

Here in the U.S., these communications tools are essential for our daily lives. We almost take for granted that every American has access to them. But that’s not the case. People who live in rural areas have often struggled to get telephone and broadband service. They get their service only when one of the smaller telephone companies in their rural area builds out new services to their customers.

Today there are new and real questions about who will be able to access advanced telecommunication services in the future. Will the people who live in rural and hard-to-reach areas have the same access as other Americans?

That question is going to be answered by the actions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the coming months. Unless the FCC protects a time-honored principle called “universal service,” millions of rural Americans could be left behind in this telecommunications revolution.

“Universal service” has a long history. Decades ago, our country decided that telephone service was an essential service, and we made a commitment that no matter where you live, even in the most rural reaches of our country, you should have access to the same telecommunication services available to those in the bigger cities. Comparable service at an affordable price — that was the basis of the policy of “universal service.” It’s the law of the land.

Now there is a real danger that the FCC could seriously undermine the concept of “universal service.” They have begun “reforming” the Universal Service Fund (USF) that helps communications providers (both wire-line and wireless) finance the commitments they have made to connect our remote and rural areas.

USF funding, along with inter-carrier compensation (the system by which providers pay one another for use of their networks), have been key to ensuring that all Americans have access to telecommunications services no matter where they live. Recent regulatory changes have diminished these funds, which small telephone companies rely on to provide service in rural America and maintain their crucial network infrastructures. Changes are absolutely necessary to reflect today’s broadband world. But as these changes are made, let’s make sure we strengthen — not weaken — the system that has helped connect rural America for decades.

There is plenty of reason to worry that actions taken by the FCC could have a devastating effect on the ability of smaller and rural telephone companies to continue to provide the most advanced telecommunication services to their customers.

The FCC document proposing a new “Connect America Fund” as a substitute for USF describes their interest in “market-driven” policies. But history has shown us that if we had relied on the “market” to move electricity and telephone service to rural and high-cost areas, we’d still be waiting. (Or, as a breathless observer once said, “we’d still be watching television by candlelight.”)

This rulemaking is serious business. And the FCC is pushing to complete it in the next four months.

I believe the first step for the FCC must be to recommit to the principle of “universal service.” The wrong decision by the FCC could be a disaster for the economic future of high-cost and rural areas. Without access to the latest and best telecommunications services, rural areas of our country will be on the wrong side of the digital divide, and consigned to a future without economic opportunity or development.

Reform done right could pave the way for sustained service and the universal build-out of the latest telecommunications services to all Americans in every region of our country, as well as the economic opportunities that come with it. That is the path I hope the FCC will choose.

Byron L. Dorgan is a former Democratic senator from North Dakota.