On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to re-task the $8.7 billion Universal Service Fund (USF) monies to address mobile broadband in rural areas and those without high-speed internet access. The move would cut federal subsidies to landline service providers and invest those funds towards mobile and fixed broadband internet services. Echoing this announcement, President Obama was in Michigan on Thursday when he announced his National Wireless Initiative, which aims to expand wireless coverage to 98% of Americans.
Established in the 1990’s, the USF was created to insure that phone service was available to all Americans in all of its far-reaching realms. Today, billions still flow into the USF. Both traditional landline and mobile phone service providers pay into the USF by way of a small user fee assessed on their customers. These fees then pay for the telephone service to customers in rural, sparsely populated or areas with rough terrain where the service is more expensive to provide.
Why the switch? In 1990, the average household relied on a landline as their number one source for communication, but today, cell phones, Skype and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have created new alternatives and magnified a broadband divide between urban and rural communities. The President thinks he has the answer to bridging the gap by retooling the use of the USF to satisfy the growing need for all Americans to have universal access to broadband.
How big of a boost is this for rural America? Huge. How likely is this to happen? Pretty darn good if the experts wrapped around the axel on speed and deployment don’t get in the way. The President has committed to, and now has a very large fund to pay for, the build-out of broadband. Plus, there are 94 shiny new freshman in Congress who ran on little else but creating jobs and cutting spending. I am not sure if it is our Sputnik moment, but it sure sounds like the awful fax-like, record-scratching sound of dial-up could become a relic of the past.
There is no greater technology available today that can do so much to change the lives of rural Americans. Having access to affordable broadband is the key to opening the doors of businesses, providing virtual marketplaces, tapping into the convenience of tele-health and in general staying competitive no matter where you live. The connectivity to healthcare, jobs, on-line educations, and markets can help repopulate rural areas, slow down the brain drain and give hope to Americans who are desperately trying to keep their hometowns alive. It may not restore what many of us remember as “Main Street U.S.A.” but it definitely gives us the tools to reinvent it. After all, the idea of “Main Street U.S.A.” doesn’t need to go away, it just needs to evolve.