Getting serious about the underserved

Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology, held a hearing March 1 to discuss reforms to the Universal Service Fund, the multi-billion dollar program to expand phone service to underserved areas.

Michael Copps, an FCC Commissioner, spoke at the hearing, and noted that high-speed Internet access needed to be part of the Universal Service Fund. Reminding Senators of the government's support of railroads, interstate highways ad other key pieces of infrastructure, Copps said that high-speed Internet connections were:

… the canals and railroads and highways of the digital age.  Our future will be in significant measure decided by how we master, or fail to master, advanced communications networks and how quickly and how well we build out broadband connectivity.

Copps pointed to advances in business, medicine and education made possible, even in the remotest areas, by high-speed Internet service. He said that while he believed the FCC had the implicit authority to promote greater high-speed Internet access, he hoped that Congress could give clear statutory support to their efforts. The status quo, he said, was equivalent to having no Internet policy in Universal Service at all.

Officials from several states with authority over telecommunications also spoke before the Committee. John Burke, of Vermont's Public Service Board, said that Internet access was "probably the most important current challenge for universal service." He noted the difficulties rural states faced in trying to build out their Internet networks, and suggested that federal matching grants could help states expand services.  Burke’s testimony was particularly interesting in light of the recent Fairpoint controversy in New England.

Reform of the Universal Service Fund, with special attention paid to the difficulties of providing Internet service, is an essential part of closing the digital divide and moving the economies of rural areas into the future. We hope that this conversation in Congress continues.

Inouye on Universal Service

FCC's Michael Copps on Universal Internet Access

Vermont's John Burke on High-Speed Internet Policy

SpeedMatters Blog: NH State Senator Urges High Speed for Rural Residents