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FCC Universal Service Fund changes likely do more harm than good for Alaska

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Photo courtesy GCI

OPINION: In blistering testimony last week, Alaska's lawmakers grilled the Federal Communications Commission about the way its reform of support for smaller communication companies might well hurt the very people it is trying to help -- especially in Alaska.

Communication is a given today -- to operate in today's marketplace, one must have high-speed Internet, and it is that truth that prompted the FCC to migrate subsidies and support from phone systems to wired or wireless broadband systems. But in many areas of Alaska, that could do a lot more harm than good. Though the FCC could not tell Sen. Lisa Murkowski or Rep. Don Young how much Alaska companies stood to lose as the FCC migrates away from "legacy phone support" starting July 1, it doesn't sound good.

The FCC contends that the migration is necessary to reform the Universal Service Fund, which allows smaller carriers to secure long-term loans. And, it says, there is a waiver process.

Young brought to a head the problem with that waiver process when he pulled out a stack of waivers, which he said cost areas hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete because of the need to hire consultants to complete the complicated process.

Young demanded that the FCC simplify that process, and make it less difficult and expensive for waivers to be applied for, though he failed to get a satisfactory response from the FCC official he was grilling.

In the meeting, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn reportedly said while not everyone is happy with the pace of change, the change was necessary to put the fund on a "sustainable path."

This is another classic example of Alaska not fitting the mold applied by the federal government. It sounds remarkably like the No Child Left Behind Act, where villages scrambling to retain teachers were told they must fire their staff because they weren't performing well enough. Round peg. Square hole. Enough said.

Part of the difficulty of governing with sweeping resolutions is that while it looks easy and fair to apply the same standard to everyone, it is far from either. In Alaska, the infrastructure needed to bring high-speed internet to every area is just going in in some areas and is years away in others. While those programs need funding, basic phone service is still somewhat tenuous in areas, and cell service is just being expanded.

A couple of weeks ago, 3G arrived in my neighborhood. Already, the speed of my phone to download and play video far exceeds my supposedly high-speed Internet connection -- the one I use to upload pages to the printer with each week and am currently making cross remarks at as I try to make it deal with the large newspaper files. And I am on the road system in a relatively suburban area.

Perhaps its time for Alaska's delegates to borrow a page from the late Sen. Ted Stevens and bring Clyburn and some of her staff to rural Alaska, with their cell phones, and see how effective they are. Maybe then they will realize that they aren't off the hook yet in terms of bringing reliable phone service to Alaska, a fact that needs to be considered when they consider pulling the rug out from funding programs that serve those needs.

High speed internet is a fantastic thing to support, and many communities are getting a taste of that for the first time. But for those who are still struggling with the ability to hold a verbal conversation, this move is a slap in the face for those who need it most.

And as for the waiver process, someone needs to sit down right now -- today -- and make the necessary changes to avoid wasting useless time and money making communities jump through hoops to avoid being swept away in a tide of poorly thought out legislation. The only people that policy serves are the consultants who are getting paid thousands of dollars to fill up binders with unnecessary information.

Bravo to the Alaska delegation for fighting this fight and let's hope the FCC listens, makes efficient changes, and solves this problem before it becomes a setback for Alaska's communication needs.

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino(at)reportalaska.com.

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