Hearing sheds light on need for universal service funding PDF E-mail

Rural America needs and deserves access to high-speed Internet services.
On that point you’ll get no argument here in Nebraska, a case made loudly and clearly last week in Aurora during one of three public hearings conducted by the Nebraska Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. It’s expensive to extend fiber optics to rural customers, which is why a combination of state and federal universal service funding has become so critical.
Dist. 34 Sen. Annette Dubas, who chairs the committee, got a lot of people’s attention by calling for an interim study of how the state gathers and spends its universal service (USF) dollars. That point became clear when we saw as many lobbyists on hand for the hearing in Aurora as citizens and industry representatives. The stakes are very high indeed, as the federal USF disbursed a reported $86 million to telecommunications companies in Nebraska in 2012, and a total of $4.5 billion nationwide.
Those are big dollars, but the fact is it’s expensive to install, maintain and constantly upgrade telecommunications infrastructure, especially in a rural environment. Hamilton Telecommunications here in Aurora noted, for example, that it cost between $10,000 and $20,000 per mile to install fiber optics in its “three-mile project” to rural customers.
Those rural customers represent only 4 percent of America, Dubas reported, though she is determined to make the 4 percent argument. Based on what we heard last week, it is a very, very convincing argument that needs to be heard.
Nebraska residents and businesses are doing some amazing things, based in large part on reliable broadband access. Health care providers are offering cutting-edge services, which not only makes them competitive, but helps save lives; telecommuters are working in a vast array of high-paying job sectors from the comfort of their home; entrepreneurs are creating jobs and opportunity; and ag producers are able to run high-tech precision equipment and access market information that directly affects the state’s largest industry.
The final day of testimony, however, indicates that Nebraska policy makers should not rely on continued federal USF support. Committee members were told in no uncertain terms that federal funds are receding, which is not surprising given the current state of affairs in Washington, and those funds that remain are clouded with legal and regulatory uncertainty.
The committee’s final report should motivate state lawmakers to insure that Nebraska’s universal services funding program remains a top priority and further still to consider if rural telecommunications infrastructure is worthy of additional financial resources. It’s a good investment for all concerned.
Kurt Johnson

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