Consumer access to broadband in high-cost markets is the central issue in rural communications today, CenturyLink, Inc. (NYSE: CTL) Executive Vice President for Public Policy and Government Relations Steve Davis told a U.S. Senate subcommittee today at a hearing on the state of rural communications.
CenturyLink recommended that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) release additional Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase I monies right away to help carriers meet the high costs of bringing broadband to unserved areas.
“In the 21st century economy, being connected has become an integral part of nearly everything we do—in work, education, medicine, agriculture and numerous other pursuits,” Davis told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. “And for rural communities seeking economic development, a robust broadband infrastructure is often a prerequisite before any business, large or small, will consider moving to that area.”
Over the past five years, CenturyLink has invested more than $4 billion to bring broadband access to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible. “And despite the rural nature of our markets, we are making high-speed Internet service available to more than 91 percent of the homes and businesses in our local service areas,” he said.
“In the last several years, broadband availability has definitely increased, but more must be done,” Davis explained. “In the near term, the challenge is to keep reaching unserved households and bring more consumers and communities into the broadband economy.”
As the FCC and rural providers have worked together, several guiding principles have emerged over time:
- We must target support on a granular basis to places where market forces would not otherwise make it available.
- We must ensure that support goes only to those uneconomic places and where there is not an unsubsidized competitor providing adequate service.
- We must ensure that supported services are reasonably equivalent to those available in urban markets, in features, quality and price.
- We must match support and obligations to serve—obligations cannot exceed the available support and those obligations should be limited to the supported areas.
CAF I is a critical feature of the FCC’s broadband deployment plan. This program is intended to jumpstart the unserved deployment process by allocating money annually to the deployment of broadband services in high-cost, unserved areas.
The states and local markets that will benefit from this funding are eager to see the release and use of these CAF I funds to build broadband networks and allow them to access the services that will be offered. With spring’s arrival, the time for providers to build networks is now.
Unsurprisingly, support for moving forward with this approach has been bipartisan and widespread across both urban and rural affiliations. Nearly 100 members of Congress have contacted the FCC within the last 90 days requesting the release of additional CAF I funds. Governors, mayors, business owners and consumers from across the country have also weighed in with their letters and words of support.
“Timely FCC action could significantly narrow the rural digital divide, and faster broadband speeds and greater availability of broadband services will give rural consumers access to new educational opportunities, cloud computing services, healthcare applications, IP television and streaming video,” Davis said.
“The good news is that it appears the FCC is ready to move forward on this important initiative. We believe and hope that the FCC is prepared to adopt an order which would lay the groundwork for use of these CAF I dollars sooner rather than later,” he noted. “For the hundreds of thousands of households and businesses that have little hope of receiving high-speed Internet services today, a speedy decision by the FCC would be a welcome and meaningful action that would improve both lives and economies in these markets for years to come.”
Davis concluded his testimony, “The challenge of bringing robust broadband services to rural America is not an easy one, but it’s an important one, and we look forward to working with the FCC and Congress in 2013 and beyond to continue improving the state of rural communications.”