The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

October 23, 2011

Jon Stouffer, guest columnist: Rural America needs broadband access

Just as the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries changed the way that Americans conducted business and lived their lives, the telecommunications revolution of the 21st century is creating a new round of economic and cultural changes. The Internet is spurring a wave of changes that is altering the way we live in Southwest Missouri.

Yet, a pending decision in Washington threatens to leave our corner of Missouri — from Joplin to Springfield and areas in between — on the side of the information superhighway.

The telecommunications revolution of the 21st century is brought to you by a growing broadband network. It is a vast improvement over older dial-up services and has allowed individuals, businesses and local governments to access services that have made our lives easier and more productive. Going back would be unthinkable, right?

But actions pending before the Federal Communications Commission threaten to do just that.

In the name of “reform” and “efficiency,” the FCC has proposed rule changes to the Universal Service Fund that will hinder easy and affordable access to broadband Internet in our state.

For rural parts of Missouri and the rest of the country, it can be extremely costly to provide telephone service, let alone broadband Internet. The USF is intended to ensure that all U.S. citizens, including those in rural high-cost areas such as Southwest Missouri, have access to telecommunications and information services comparable in quality and cost to those available in urban areas.

Small, community-based rural broadband providers put USF to good use for rural Missourians. We’ve brought them affordable, cutting-edge broadband Internet service so they can access the same high-speed Internet as that enjoyed by other Americans living in big cities.

As a result, it is easier for families to stay connected. Young professionals can work from home instead of moving to larger cities to find jobs. Small businesses can offer their services to new customers both in other parts of Missouri and around the world.

The FCC’s proposed changes could end all of this.

The threat to the USF goes beyond vague terms such as efficiency and reform. The FCC’s proposal would put vital services at risk and undermine decades of successful investment in vital broadband infrastructure in rural areas. The consequences to Missouri’s economy and its ability to sustain and create jobs would be severe.

According to a recent study conducted by the Missouri State University’s Bureau of Economic Research, output in Missouri would decline by over half a billion dollars over the next five years from what it otherwise would have been if the USF program was kept as is. Employment would diminish by 3,500 jobs, with wages declining by over $162 million during the 2012 to 2016 period. Less economic activity means less tax revenue, with almost $35 million in decreased state and local taxes during this five-year period.

The study also finds that many small rural telecommunications companies operating in Missouri could go bankrupt as a result. Those that survive could be forced to decrease their investment in new infrastructure and equipment by approximately 40 percent. Quality and availability of basic telephone and broadband service within rural communities would deteriorate.

The bottom line? Small, innovative telecommunications companies and the local people and businesses they serve in rural Missouri would be driven out of business. It would cost jobs, such as those at my company, a proud Missouri business since 1904. It would make our state less attractive to businesses seeking to relocate here.

Rural telecommunications companies have proposed an alternative plan that would maintain a viable USF. Right now, it appears that the FCC is stepping back from its proposal, but powerful elements in the cable and wireless industry are pushing the FCC to gut the USF.

Small telecommunications providers are dedicated to delivering and upgrading the broadband foundation to meet the new technological challenges facing our nation. Universal service funding is essential to this task. If the FCC is serious about “broadband for all,” it needs to adopt the industry proposal and reject efforts to gut the USF.

Jon Stouffer is the president of the Granby Telephone Co. in Granby.

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