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Universal Service Fund Revisions Need Community Involvement (Opinion)

The FCC’s proposed revisions to the Universal Service Fund subsidy program give communities a prime chance to shape their broadband.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

That will be my opening statement at a luncheon presentation I’m doing for the mayor, City Council, business leaders and other broadband stakeholders in Salisbury, N.C., on Friday, Feb. 11. It’s their 26th annual Future Directions and Goal Setting Conference. They want to make sure the city’s broadband network is a solid part of their future.

They won the uphill fight for broadband that’s 100 percent community-owned because they faced and answered that question — if not us, who? — by pushing forward when there were just a couple of community networks in the state. Wilson, N.C., has one, and it’s city-owned too. Asheville has another, which is run by a community nonprofit.   

Thanks in large part to the broadband stimulus and inspiration from Google’s gigabit network contest, dozens of communities are moving this ball forward because they realize broadband has clearly transformed from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.” The technology is a game changer in economic development, health-care service delivery and other vital areas of a community’s existence.  

It’s time that plenty more communities face the question, “If not us, who?” You don’t have to be the network’s sole owner, though there is much to be said for that. And if you do own it, you don’t have to provide services on the network. There are many business models that might best suit a community’s needs and politics. However, the community should step up and take charge of the process of deciding how to bring broadband to constituents when no one else will, or determining if current services are insufficient to meet current and future needs.

Not all of the actions need to be local. Though it may seem daunting, keep tabs on broadband developments at the national level, and whenever possible, play an active role in developments there.

The biggie on deck this week is the FCC’s plan for Universal Service Fund (USF) reform. This affects nearly all constituents one way or another. There’s an estimated $4 billion per year likely to be going to broadband deployment efforts as a result of changes to the USF. We all pay into the USF via our phone bills, and some of that money could find its way to your community to deliver broadband. The pessimistic viewpoint is that much of this money will go to large national telcos and cable companies that deliver broadband that won’t meet communities’ long-term needs.

On Monday, Feb. 7, I shared a Washington, D.C., dais with the National Broadband Plan’s Chief Architect, Blair Levin, in a Meet the Press-style interview/discussion. One point I emphasized heavily is that communities need to be full-on partners in this reform process: defining what needs that broadband should address and establishing the rules for awarding funds, and being key players deciding who gets this money.  

But communities won’t have a seat at the table unless they engage and demand one. Learn what the USF is all about, understand the politics, write and phone Congresspeople, monitor the FCC’s website like a hawk, motivate constituents to write public comments. Their first meeting asking for comments on USF reform is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 8.  

I’ve been telling people in Washington that they should ask community stakeholders, “What can you create with broadband that’s capable of taking you to a place that’s much better than where you are? Bring us your best ideas.” I’m trying to convince them that those with a creation orientation can come up with the best achievements that get great returns on the money.

Using this creation orientation, Google inspired nearly 200,000 people nationwide to write in with feedback and ideas for improving their communities. In pursuit if Google’s 1 gigabit per second network, approximately 1,100 communities rallied Democrats, Republicans, old, young, rich and poor — constituents who typically may not work together — to create local broadband plans. Only one or two communities will get an ultra-high-speed network from Google, but many others such as Baltimore and Greensboro, N.C., have taken their broadband destinies into their own hands to investigate solutions.

The best thing Washington can do is ask communities four straightforward questions: What would you create with a gigabit network, how would you do it, who in the private sector would you partner with, and how would you ensure financial sustainability? Standard criteria and questions should be established so that communities gather the same baseline information, but still develop solutions that are best suited for their specific needs. Return the billions of dollars collected via phone bills that go into the Universal Service Fund, and direct the money into our communities and in a way that leads to the best results.

If we could put a man on the moon within 10 years given the limited technology and knowledge available in 1961, then surely we can bring truly transformative broadband to all corners of America. But we can’t do it running the USF for broadband the same way we ran the USF for telephone services. This applies to urban as well as rural communities.

No one person is going to be able to effect this change. Communities have to stand up for themselves and get a little dusty, a little sweaty. Those who’ve complained about a service provider incumbent or services that don’t meet a credible definition of broadband have to act where frustration now simmers.

Pick up the gauntlet and make broadband happen. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, broadband strategy consultant and co-founder of Communities United for Broadband, which delivers on-site training to private- and public-sector organizations. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) and his blog, Fighting the Next Good Fight.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.