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Dorgan Weary, Levin Optimistic of FCC’s USF Reform Proposals

Two Different Directions on the Path to USF Reform

On June 3, Former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Aspen Institute Fellow/National Broadband Plan Director Blair Levin hit the media to discuss different perspectives on the FCC’s proposals for Universal Service Reform. Dorgan discussed his skepticism of the FCC’s ability to promote broadband deployment in extremely rural areas on The Hill’s Congress Blog, and Levin discussed his feelings about the success of the National Broadband Plan on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” These two divergent opinions illustrate the controversial nature of the USF Reform debate, which will surely become increasingly more contentious as the FCC moves towards a rulemaking, presumably within the next few months.

Dorgan’s blog post, “Will the FCC Stay Committed to Rural America?” marvels at the progress of the global telecommunications industry, which “is possible because…governments have made access to telecommunications a priority.” However, Dorgan points out that rural Americans are often disadvantaged in broadband service. Dorgan asks, “Will the people who live in rural and hard-to-reach areas have the same access as other Americans?” This is definitely one of the most troubling questions in the USF Reform debate, and depending on whom you ask, the answers may be quite different.

Dorgan reiterates many of the fears and concerns shared by the rural telecommunications industry, and he states “Now there is a real danger that the FCC could seriously undermine the concept of ‘universal service,’” due to the uncertainty over funding for small rural telecommunications providers. Dorgan warns that the companies who have successfully provided telephone and broadband service to the most rural and economically unattractive areas of the country must not be weakened in the process of transitioning to a broadband-supported USF.  He is concerned about the “market-driven” aspect of the Connect America Fund, noting that “history has shown us that if we had relied on the ‘market’ to move electricity and telephone service to rural and high-cost areas, we’d still be waiting.” Dorgan sincerely hopes that the FCC will implement the right path for USF Reform, whereby rural America can prosper and benefit from broadband instead of falling further behind in the urban-rural digital divide.

Blair Levin on the other hand is often considered an opponent of the rural telecom industry. He has made negative statements in the past about RLECs, and he arguably does not wish to see future USF/CAF support going to small rural telecom providers.  In the C-SPAN interview, Levin praised the 2010 National Broadband Plan as “very, very successful” overall, largely because nearly every significant telecom debate and proceeding going on right now can be traced to a National Broadband Plan recommendation.  Levin strongly supports “incentive auctions,” or reverse auctions, which are typically not favored by the rural telecom industry.

When asked about USF Reform, Levin commented that it is possible—but not likely—that the FCC will meet its aggressive deadline. However, he is optimistic about the reforms underway, and unlike Dorgan, Levin believes USF Reform is moving in the right direction. Although Levin did not outright say anything negative about rural telecom providers, he did say that the FCC should not continue to “prop up certain phone companies” that act in uneconomic ways. Knowing his opinions about rural telecom providers, that comment could certainly be translated as a backhanded dig at RLECs. Levin is concerned that these “certain phone companies” are not demonstrating a public gain, but if many rural areas only have one option for high-speed, high-quality broadband—from an RLEC—how can he say USF is not supporting a public gain by funding these companies? These rural communities would not have any broadband if not for the investments of RLECs, supported by USF.

RLECs are definitely more likely to relate to Dorgan’s blog post, but it is important to understand both sides of the debate. It is interesting that two leaders, on the same day, came out and essentially said that USF Reform is moving down polar opposite paths—one the “right,” and one the “wrong.” From the RLEC perspective, Dorgan really summed up the severity of the debate by stating, “The wrong decision by the FCC could be a disaster for the economic future of high-cost and rural areas. Without access to the latest and best telecommunications services, rural areas of our country will be on the wrong side of the digital divide, and consigned to a future without economic opportunity or development.”

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