ARLINGTON, Va., June 18, 2009 — Properly measuring rural broadband access and availability with a broader set of definitions was necessary to reform the Universal Service Fund, a group of rural and tribal telecom executives said Thursday at the Pike and Fischer Broadband Policy Summit.
Randy Sukow, business analyst with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, said expanding the definitions was vital to the long-term sustainability of rural broadband access.
“Once we have service established, what do we do next to make sure it lasts when the recovery money is gone?” he asked.
The wide demographic differences and population densities between different areas poses a challenge to policymakers, But Sukow said there was a “chance to provide competition in rural areas" with the right resources and technology, he said.
Rural communities pose very different challenges to telecommunications providers when deploying service, Eastern Kentucky Networks CEO Gerald Robinson said. “In a very rural market you’re going to have very different problems than an urban market,” he said.
Providers in urban markets are concerned with capacity, Robinson said rural operators are more concerned with coverage. "You can’t sink $500,000 into a cell tower if it’s going to serve thirty people,” he said.
Some communities barely receive adequate voice service, said National Tribal Telecommunications Association Policy Counsel Eric Jensen. He warned that without bridging this basic “analog divide,” tribal communities will be abandoned when the “tsunami of funding” from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act comes through.
Rising broadband costs will also be impacted by the FCC's failure to reform the Universal Service Fund, Sukow said. As more consumers drop their landline service, fewer dollars will flow into the fund. USF cannot be fixed “until you come to this balance of who’s going to pay for it," he said.
USF reform can only increase broadband access if it is changed to allow subsidies for satellite and wireless broadband. Under the current regime, “there is no mechanism for support in [NRTC] members’ investment in certain things,” he said, since many cooperatives rely on USF subsidies to maintain their bottom lines.
Editor's Note (6/22): The title of Randy Sukow was corrected.