Regulators should make it easier for telephone companies to build out the next generation of Internet-based communications services for rural America, rather than forcing them to maintain the old copper-line system. The executive vice president of the US Cattlemen's Association explains the communications needs of today's modern cowboy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In recent years major telephone carriers like AT&T have asked state lawmakers to relieve them of some obligations of serving customers with copper-line networks so they can focus on building out next-generation, digital service to more communities. Some rural advocates have opposed these changes for fear that rural Americans will lose traditional phone service and get nothing to replace it. In this column, a US Cattlemen’s Association executive explains why he thinks rural communities will benefit from allowing communications companies to move out of copper-line service more expiditiously.
Our communications system is changing. It’s always been changing as technology developed from party lines and operator-assisted long distance calls to the rotary phone to smartphones. As the nation has gone through each of these transitions, rural America has sometimes lagged behind the rest of the country. Now, though, as the country is in the midst of the changeover to all-Internet Protocol (IP) based networks, rural America has the potential to match our urban counterparts step for step.
As consumers rapidly adopt more dynamic IP-based services, both wired (like Voice over Internet Protocol – VOIP) and wireless (4G LTE), they are leaving the old voice-centric copper wire network behind. This migration to IP-based networks is happening as a result of consumer demand for the benefits of IP technology that harnesses the power of advanced broadband. These networks bring not just voice but also data, high speed Internet, video, and life-enhancing applications to consumers, regardless of where they are, and particularly to communities in rural America.
The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) policy on broadband is simple: USCA wants to encourage policymakers to make policy that provides the regulatory certainty that will encourage the substantial private sector investment that will bring more, better, and faster broadband to rural America. Right now, that means encouraging a rapid and smooth transition from the old voice-centric networks to robust IP-based networks and services.
Until regulations are updated to account for the IP transition, certain incumbent telephone network operators will continue to have to support two networks – the slow, legacy copper-based telephone network and the new, faster and more capable IP-based network. The legacy network is not only antiquated but is expensive to maintain and becoming even more expensive as more consumers leave their traditional wireline phone service and switch to IP-based solutions, such as VoIP or LTE mobile phone service.
Moreover, as consumers leave the old network, maintenance costs are borne by a declining number of consumers. Plus, every dollar spent maintaining the old network is a dollar not invested in the new network. Less than a third of Americans still use the old network, and that number continues to decline. Rural America would be better served by that investment going toward the new network as soon as possible, so these technologies will reach us more quickly. As the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan stated back in 2010, “Like railroads and highways, broadband accelerates the velocity of commerce, reducing the costs of distance.”
In addition, to complete the build out of IP networks to rural America will require massive investment by broadband network operators. AT&T, for instance, in late 2012 announced a program to spend $66 billion over three years to make the IP transition a reality. Other network operators are also investing, but more is needed. Only with sustained levels of investment can we be sure that these technological changes will reach rural America with faster and more capable broadband services, including the advanced high speed IP broadband services that are now being introduced in major cities.
The benefits of broadband to our country are great and the stakes are too high to get this wrong. A recent FCC filing supporting the IP transition described some of these benefits: “The rapid build out of next-generation IP-enabled networks can deliver new job opportunities, connect rural citizens to distant medical specialists and facilities, and allow young students to take advantage of distance-learning, providing them with the same high-quality courses available to their urban peers.” By bridging the distance gap that has sometimes held back rural America, advanced IP-enabled broadband services will keep more people in rural America and attract businesses that want to relocate, bringing much needed jobs to rural areas. Distance learning opportunities and mobile health applications that connect rural America to great opportunities for health and education will become routine. Mobile health applications, in particular, will both improve health outcomes and reduce national health care costs as much as $197 billion over the next 25 years.
A significant number of farmers and ranchers are taking advantage of the many broadband-enabled applications that help manage their agriculture operations, property and livestock more efficiently and find new markets for their products. In 2011, more than 62% of all U.S. farms and ranches and 82% of larger farms and ranches were connected to the Internet. It’s time to finish the job. The IP transition will bring advanced broadband services to rural America and like the railroads and highways open a new pathway for economic growth for everyone.
USCA encourages policy makers to provide the right incentives to communications providers to push these high speed IP networks deeper into rural America. The right policies and additional private sector investment will provide rural Americans with greater access to high speed broadband. Even as technologies continue to evolve, the goal of bringing equality to rural America should remain constant.
Jess Peterson is a fifth generation rancher. He and his wife, Laura, manage a cow-calf operation near Miles City, Montana. Peterson serves as the Executive Vice President for the US Cattlemen’s Association.