WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2017 – Getting policymakers to pay lip service to the need for expanded rural broadband has never been a problem. Getting those same people to act on the issue, however, hasn’t always been as easy.

But there’s a sense in the rural broadband industry that the coming year will be critical if the sector ever wants to graduate from popular talking point to bona fide service. That’s because the industry sees the possibility – albeit not a guarantee – that an administration-backed infrastructure bill might be produced, but also because providers see the near future as a critical time for the health of the Universal Service Fund.

“If you don’t do it now, I think it gets too late,” Trent Boaldin, president of Oklahoma-based rural telecommunications provider Epic Touch, said of potential fixes to the USF. “I just think that the areas we serve will suffer so much that … there will be no need for universal service because the areas will fall apart.”

That less-than-optimistic assessment comes as the governance of the USF and its distribution of funding was a topic of conversation for NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association members meeting in Washington last week.

The USF is a pool of funds collected from assessments on phone bills which is then used to build out communications networks in high-cost areas, many of which overlap with the areas in need of improved rural broadband service. Companies looking to expand in these areas build out their networks, then submit their costs to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which governs the fund, to recoup that investment.

But there have been issues with the cost-recovery aspect of the equation. Companies are complaining that the fund doesn’t work in a timely and sufficient manner, if it works at all. The pool of money is also shrinking, leading to increased competition for the funds that are available. NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said in an interview with Agri-Pulse that groups have to make a high-stakes guess if they want to have USF support for an expansion project.

“(Companies are) trying to make their best guesses about how much can I invest, how much can I get back on that investment, and how far can I go before I basically run my company into bankruptcy?” she said.


Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA

During the meeting, NTCA members also traveled to Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress to push for more stability in the fund. Providers say they don’t expect the FCC to act without congressional pressure, and FCC action is needed.

“The tools are there, the forecasts are there, we’ve identified the proper amounts, now let’s get the mechanism to fund it properly,” Brian Boisvert, CEO and general manager of Wilson Communications in Wichita, Kansas, told NTCA members.   

Aside from the administrative push, there’s also a window of hope for possible legislative action that could boost rural broadband access: a potential infrastructure bill and the upcoming farm bill.

“We will look like moths to the light for whatever vehicle seems to be moving,” Bloomfield said when asked if there was a preference on which piece of legislation could better address rural broadband’s needs.

The farm bill would be limited to programs under USDA jurisdiction, which would include Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans used by many in the industry but would do little to help with the USF issue.

“The farm bill cannot begin to address some of the things that we see in terms of universal service” and helping with other factors “that actually create the business model for RUS to say ‘yes’ to a loan,” Bloomfield said.

On the matter of the infrastructure bill, Bloomfield admits that she’s “probably more bullish than other folks” on the matter. Legislative priorities on other fronts have cooled talks about this bill, which would also be called upon to address needs in highway and water infrastructure.

No matter the avenue, Bloomfield and other industry leaders will attest to the need to improve rural broadband. The status quo, they say, will only lead to further urban migration of populations and could even hurt things like small bed and breakfasts looking to attract visitors. The concern in the industry goes beyond the ability to host a Facebook Live video of sandwich preparation while simultaneously streaming HD-quality Netflix; it’s a concern that communities might start to dry up if the modern day technological well runs dry.

“Who’s going to locate their business, what young people are going to come back to these communities if you don’t have broadband access?” Bloomfield said. 


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