A political battle is underway in Washington, and the implications for public safety in rural America must be recognized. Wireless service is critical to effective public safety and is relied upon by citizens and first responders, especially in rural and remote regions of the country. Yet despite the need for more wireless service in less populated areas, the Federal Communications Commission is considering a recommendation that could slow or stop the expansion of wireless service in areas where it is needed most.
From catastrophic weather events, such as wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards, to accidents on lonely stretches of highway, the need for wireless services is clear. We are all familiar with stories of wireless phones making possible the rescue of trapped firefighters, locating lost hikers and allowing stranded motorists to call for help. Often, these services simply would not be available if it weren't for universal service support.
Under a very successful law passed in 1996, wireless service has expanded dramatically into very rural and hard-to-reach areas, which has greatly benefited consumers and enabled rural communities to address critical public safety needs for individuals and first responders in emergencies. More than $22 billion has been paid into the federal Universal Service Fund (USF) by ratepayers including wireless customers, so people, hospitals and schools in remote areas can gain access to services long enjoyed by urban and suburban residents.
Today, USF policies have become costly and unsustainable. The root causes, including continued funding based on customers that landline carriers lost long ago, need to be fixed. Instead, however, a joint-federal advisory board has suggested that the FCC restrict only funding for competitive carriers, meaning wireless companies.
Wireless service has become the choice of consumers and a vital life-line to first responders. It is also an innovation. Indeed, innovation through competition was a cornerstone of the law that created the USF to help fund the reach of telecommunications into remote parts of America. New restrictions should not penalize newer technologies or interfere with the free market. Rural consumers deserve the benefits of fair competition: service choices similar in quality and price to those available in urban areas, just as Congress initially intended.
Without access to wireless service, rural and remote communities will see a further exodus of jobs, businesses and individuals. Universal service support for wireless has been a cornerstone in increasing economic development and better emergency services — so why stop such progress? Yet regulators now might reduce funds only for new carriers, which would keep the system inefficient while limiting consumer access in rural areas to wireless service. Although this proposal is called a temporary cap, many temporary rules become permanent reality. Instead, why not address the system's actual inefficiencies, such as subsidies to landline providers in amounts that bear no correlation to their role or contribution in the marketplace?
Why give landline companies the same levels of support funds even when they serve fewer customers each year? Why guarantee them a profit margin? Does it make any sense in this day and age for the government to make this kind of demand on ratepayers? Such policies might have made sense 50 years ago when rural consumers could only sign up with a single local landline provider. But modern technologies have given consumers dramatic new choices — and they have spoken loudly in favor of wireless. So why stop such progress? Consumer outrage at the pending recommendation is so strong, key members of Congress have introduced legislation opposing the recommendation of the advisory board.
The cost of building wireless networks in rural America should be supported — just as landline networks' initial build out was supported. Surprisingly, landline carriers still receive a disproportionate share of USF funding even though the vast majority of their construction is finished. Whereas, in some states, wireless receives no USF support at all.
Wireless is an important part of our nation's telecommunications world. Consumers in rural, farming and remote regions of the country should not be penalized. I and many of my colleagues hope the FCC will address the issue of universal service reform fairly, equitably, and without "picking winners" in the marketplace. The expansion of wireless service throughout remote areas is critical to public safety, business and private citizens' communications, and the public interest.
Jonathan Foxman is President and CEO of Chinook Wireless.