The Internet is simply a vast, interconnected network of telecommunications networks. It is axiomatic that a functioning telecom network is not only necessary, but essential for anyone who wants to share in connectivity to the world around them. From finding employment opportunities, to accessing medical information, whether by wireline, wireless, or other devices, this network propels our economy and leads to increased human productivity.

For years, however, much of rural America has lacked reliable telecom services due to poor business decisions and logistical nightmares. In attempts to rectify the issue, public and private sector participants have made increased rural access a policy goal in recent years. That is a noble goal and one that has incented medium-sized telecom companies to compete with the traditional Internet and wireless giants.

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As we've seen time and time again, however, following through on something is a lot harder than just declaring it a goal. Alaska is a case in point. According to the FCC's Broadband Availability in America report, nearly 81 percent of rural Alaskans don't have broadband access. That is one of the highest percentages in the country, trailing only Vermont, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In its 2014 report, the Alaska Broadband Task Force recommended that every Alaska household should have access to 100 megabits per second by 2020. The Chair of the Task Force estimated it would take about $1 billion to meet that goal. So it is instructive to turn to the Universal Service Fund (USF), a government telecom subsidies program, which can and should be used to support the expansion of rural broadband services.

The USF allocates $230 million a year to Alaska to ensure broadband access across the state. Thus, simple math indicates that Alaska should be able to meet the Task Force’s goal of 100 megabit access in roughly four years. But that assumes that the USF subsidies are actually being allocated and used for expansion of rural broadband services.

Enter GCI. It is the largest provider of residential and business telecommunications services in Alaska-a virtual monopoly. GCI receives $170 million, or about 75 percent of the USF allocation. However, nearly 81% of rural Alaskans still don’t have broadband access, an appalling number. It is evident that Alaskans are not getting the intended broadband service promised by the USF. GCI, and its failure to fulfill its obligation to provide telecom services to rural Alaskans, is gaming the system, and no one is monitoring this or holding GCI accountable. This should serve as a cautionary tale for any entity embarking upon rural telecom expeditions and expansions.

It's a different, and worse, situation in Vermont. While the evidence shows that USF dollars are not being utilized effectively in Alaska, they are simply not even being given out in Vermont. In 2014, the State Legislature created the Vermont High-Cost program to improve broadband service in rural areas. Since its inception, the program has awarded a total of zero dollars.

The Vermont Public Service Board has not been able to decide how the money should be awarded and which companies should be designated as eligible telecommunications carriers. The State's Director of Telecommunications and Connectivity has called the delay in funding "a big deal”.

Access to rural broadband is a big deal. Lack of broadband access deprives rural residents of information and opportunity. When more than 80 percent of rural residents in five states don't have broadband, it's time to ask why, and what the state regulators are doing wrong, or simply not doing at all. While providing rural access is inherently more difficult than in urban areas, the standards to which companies are held accountable should not be abandoned, or compromised in any way. We need to start matching actions with words and ensure that rural broadband access is a reality in every state.

Hon. Christopher D. Coursen spent three years as Republican Majority Counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee and as Chief Counsel of the Communications Subcommittee. He is the President and CEO of The Status Group, a Washington D.C., government relations consulting firm.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.