Universal Service and Rural America

What can be done to enable rural America to keep pace with the rest of the country?

Universal Service and Rural America

Sharon Strover
Director, Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute
Professor, Department of Radio-Television-Film
College of Communications
University of Texas at Austin
[email protected]

This paper summarizes some of the economic factors that highlight the need for improved telecommunications in rural regions, framing the transformations associated with the information technologies of the past three decades as essential to cultivating economic vitality in rural areas. Rural America is far behind in its broadband access compared to urban areas -- yet stands to benefit most by bridging geography. Rural connectivity is vital to cultivating economic vitality in rural areas. But the FCC’s rural broadband data, reliant on zip codes that span vast areas in rural America, provides a poor tool for gauging the pervasiveness of broadband subscribership in rural America. Rural Americans are indeed being left behind, as are rural small businesses. Broadband in these rural and remote regions offers extraordinary benefits. Broadband can help empower people thru improved access to health care, better education, and access to more jobs -- lifting rural economies and connecting their success to the rest of the country.

Observations about universal service and telecommunications in rural areas:

  • The demand for “advanced” services is more uncertain in rural regions than in metro areas.
  • Broadband deployment data are problematic, and connectivity in rural areas is still questionable;
  • Although the FCC appears to believe that broadband connectivity is sufficient, it is a necessary but not sufficient element required to exploit the powers of new technologies.
  • Access and use data suggest rural populations do not have home or work-based access to broadband on a basis comparable to that of metropolitan regions.
  • Small businesses in rural areas do not incorporate access to the Internet into their operations as ably as do small businesses in metropolitan regions.
  • The E-rate program doubtless has benefited rural areas, but there appears to be no special advantage to rural states (those with lower population densities) in terms of garnering these funds. It remains an open question as to whether, in the absence of E-rate funds, rural schools and libraries would be able to maintain their educational technology infrastructure.

Revising universal service with rural regions in mind
A capabilities approach to universal service would alter the terms of how we think about this constellation of priorities. It implies at minimum (1) a process of ascertaining needs and localized constructions of priorities and (2) broadening the range of what could be supported under this program.

  • Option 1: Grants for Internet training. These could be block grants and must be outcomes-oriented and outcomes-dependent. The target populations could be not only individual users but also small businesses. Increasing small business use of the Internet could have tremendous economic impact on rural regions. Grants within states themselves could go to various entities, including non-profits, towns, county and local government units, etc.
  • Option 2: Universal service funds should enhance communities’ projects for extending their telecommunications capabilities. They could be used to match local investment in infrastructure, connectivity, public access and similar access technologies. Provide broadband infrastructure development and use incentives to communities that can demonstrate they are ready to develop both their own facilities/expertise as well as their abilities to use these facilities. Communities should match federal investment in some manner. Communities could purchase broadband services or develop their own infrastructures.
  • Option 3: Invest in community college-based Internet applications capabilities classes for individuals and small businesses. Create incentives for colleges that enroll small business owners, with some outcome-based measure being the trigger for an incentive “subsidy” or payment.
  • Option 4: Create “Rural Leadership Academies” that select aspiring or actual rural leaders for two-three weeks of leadership training, which would include training in not only using the Internet but also training in running computer education clinics or courses, in “nuts and bolts” of broadband infrastructure, and in resource-sharing across institutions. The Leaders would be charged with catalyzing Internet availability and use in their respective communities, leaving it to them to decide what makes most sense for their own unique circumstances.