Published 6:39 am Tuesday, June 12, 2007
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CEO Of U.S. Cellular
Proposed cap will hurt
rural North Carolina
As North Carolinians know, the wind is blowing strong in the direction of wireless. Cell phones are no longer a novelty, they are a necessity. More and more people are claiming wireless phones as their only phone lines.
But while having a strong cell signal is convenient, it also plays a critical role in public safety. First responders and law-enforcement officials depend on reliable wireless coverage to reach people in a variety of urgent, emergency situations. And if we can’t find a way to narrow the technological gap between urban and rural areas — in North Carolina and across the country — economic development will suffer. As things stand, many of North Carolina’s more rural residents are still working hard to secure the reliable wireless infrastructure that helps attract new businesses and tourists.
We need to do more, and we can do more. For the past decade, telecommunications providers have drawn from the federal Universal Service Fund, to help build infrastructure in sparsely-populated areas. The USF was created in part to ensure that the telecommunications choices made available to rural residents are reasonably comparable to those available in urban areas — in both price and quality.
For example, in November 2006, U.S. Cellular completed construction on a new cell tower in Hot Springs, providing the community its first access to wireless service. As part of a statewide network of nearly 400 U.S. Cellular towers, this tower benefits area emergency personnel as well as customers along Interstate 40 and in downtown Hot Springs.
Unfortunately, the FCC wants to cap the funds that make wireless infrastructure development possible. If this cap goes through, the federal funds that would have come into North Carolina to help expand rural networks will be indefinitely delayed. The FCC is expected to impose this cap in the next four to eight weeks — and its effects on the safety and economic development of rural areas will last for years.
This proposed cap would hit residents of North Carolina especially hard, because while North Carolina’s consumers contribute an estimated $200 million into the federal USF, the state currently draws out only $5 million per year to use on wireless infrastructure development. Since October of 2004, U.S. Cellular has had a petition pending at the FCC to be designated as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier in North Carolina. Designation as an ETC will allow our company to draw from the federal universal service. All funds must be used to construct, improve and maintain our facilities in rural areas within the state. Despite our being qualified, the FCC has not acted on our petition.
If our petition is granted, the federal fund will provide an estimated $3.8 million per year to support our network construction in some of the state’s rural areas. In our petition, we have committed to construct cell sites that will bring service to 20 rural communities in North Carolina within the first 18 months after designation. These new cell sites are in joining to other construction that we are planning to build in rural areas with internally generated capital.
Many of the communities we propose to serve are very small and consumers are telling us that we need to construct new cell sites in order to make service available where they live and work. USF funds are necessary to bring wireless to these communities, as their size won’t support stand-alone investment — and the USF was created expressly to aid these communities.
USF must make room for wireless: it’s commerce, it’s a connection to markets and it’s clearly the future. To this end, U.S. Cellular is supporting Connecting Rural America, a grassroots coalition working to level the regulatory playing field so that rural consumers can access high-quality wireless telecommunications services. You can learn more at www.connectingruralamerica.org.
We can’t afford to leave rural America behind.