The Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to reclassify broadband as an information service – the status it had for nearly two decades under which the internet grew and flourished — has received over 20 million comments expressing views on both sides of the issue. Amid all the noise, it’s important to ensure that one aspect of the rulemaking not be overlooked: its huge impact on rural America.
The rural issue is at the heart of the Commission’s concerns. In announcing the “Restoring Internet Freedom” rulemaking, the FCC stated that “[o]ur actions today continue our critical work to promote broadband deployment to rural consumers and infrastructure investment throughout our nation, to brighten the future of innovation both within networks and at their edge, and to close the digital divide.” And in July, the Commission declared August to be “Rural Broadband Month” at the FCC.
Two years following the 2015 reclassification of broadband as a common carrier telecommunications service, it’s clear that broadband investment has declined in rural America. Representatives of internet service providers (ISPs) from states like Arkansas, Washington, Kentucky, and Nebraska have all offered evidence detailing how regulatory uncertainty arising from the “Title II” decision has retarded and, in many situations, stopped investment in their regions.
In the case of Aristotle, an ISP serving rural Arkansas, the company “dialed back its plans to triple its customer base and expand service into unserved areas of rural Arkansas as a result of the Title II Order,” as highlighted by the FCC. Similarly, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which has a large rural membership, said that the switch to Title II has led to “vast uncertainty and significant negative economic impacts for WISPA members who have built their networks from scratch using their own at-risk capital without federal subsidies[.]”
One simply cannot expect carriers to invest tens of billions of dollars in broadband deployments when they don’t know which regulatory aspects of Title II are going to be implemented by the FCC from time to time. Will the FCC control terms and conditions of service? Will it set rates? Will it require unbundling of networks or network elements? The prudent carrier simply steps back in such a situation and forestalls investment until longer-term clarity can be achieved.
Having represented Virginia’s most rural district in the U.S. House for 28 years, I know that America’s rural regions are destined to be the most adversely affected by the decline in broadband investment occasioned by this regulatory uncertainty. The economic case for broadband deployment in rural areas is challenging under the best of circumstances – long distances must be traveled over often mountainous terrain to deploy fiber-optic lines to lightly populated communities where family incomes below the national average may impede the number of subscribers. Adding the uncertainty of Title II regulation to these economic challenges can be a fatal blow for the aspirations of rural communities to have access to modern communication networks.
Of course, the formula for bringing high-speed internet connectivity to everyone in rural America is multi-faceted. It requires a combination of wired and wireless deployments, and government – through the FCC’s Universal Service programs and loans and grants from the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture – all have a role to play. But indispensable to success is the creation of a regulatory framework that incentivizes private capital to deploy broadband everywhere, including rural America. As long as the regulatory uncertainty of Title II remains, rural America to a large extent will be cut off from essential private broadband deployment funding and, as a result, fall even further behind.
The discussion, as well as a fair amount of heated rhetoric, are sure to continue over the next few weeks regarding the proper classification for broadband. Meanwhile, don’t forget rural America. The best way to ensure that all corners of the country get the connectivity they need is for the FCC to restore the classification of broadband as an information service. Thereafter, Congress should enact legislation that codifies open internet rules and at long last puts to rest a debate that has raged for more than a decade.