High-speed Internet service has paved the way for opportunities only dreamed of by generations past. People can stay in touch with friends in the next town or in another country. Businesses in small towns such as Tebbetts can conduct business with customers in St. Louis or Singapore.
So why would the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consider a proposal that would halt the growth of the Internet in rural Missouri communities? While modernizing the rules is a good goal, the FCC needs to do it right to ensure towns such as Higbee and Bunceton remain connected.
Deploying broadband Internet in sparsely populated rural areas requires a much higher dollar investment than in more populated areas. Fortunately, the federal government created the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help rural telecommunications companies pay the extra cost of providing Internet service at a fair cost to consumers. In many rural communities, these small, independent and locally operated companies are the only providers of Internet services to rural consumers.
The USF has been tremendously successful in fulfilling its goals. Thousands of Missourians have access to broadband thanks to small carriers and the USF.
A recent study by Missouri State University's Bureau of Economic Research examined what would happen if the USF was curtailed. Rural telecommunications companies that are bringing broadband to rural Missouri would have two options: drastically raise prices or slash staff and investment in maintaining existing networks. Some may have to do both.
Even if they take these steps, the study estimates many small providers will go out of business, resulting in thousands of Missourians losing telephone and Internet service.
The study also estimates Missouri would lose 3,500 rural jobs if the FCC's reforms become reality. Economic output would decline by a whopping $604 billion over a five-year period. The state and localities would lose nearly $35 million in revenue from their already depleted coffers.
Fortunately, the FCC seems to be stepping back from its original proposal and is considering an industry-backed consensus framework that would allow rural providers to continue providing broadband in Missouri and other states. But the cable and wireless companies want to upset the consensus framework and push the FCC back toward its original plan.
If the FCC is serious about broadband access for rural America, it must maintain a viable Universal Service Fund. That means approving the consensus framework. Anything less would be catastrophic for rural Missouri.