My Turn: Protecting Alaska from misguided federal oversight

Alaska’s rural telecommunications providers work hard every day to serve the most remote areas of the country — and as all Alaskans know, this kind of undertaking is both difficult and expensive. We do not back down from this challenge, however, and we have worked for years to build out broadband networks across the state in an efficient and effective manner. Unfortunately, some of the decision-makers in Washington, D.C. have a deep misunderstanding of the cost of doing business in Alaska.

 

Under the leadership of its former Chairman, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated an effort to “modernize and update” the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system that has been in place for decades to support the availability and affordability of critical communications services in high-cost places like Alaska. The USF system has worked well during its tenure, but it was admittedly in need of modernization to support sustainable broadband deployment across the country.

Regrettably, the FCC’s USF “modernization” for smaller telecommunications providers, such as Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative (ASTAC) and most of the other carriers of last resort in Alaska, has been wrought with errors and miscalculations. As just one example of many, and of greatest concern to every Alaska resident and business, the FCC’s USF changes inexplicably assumed that it is 45 percent less expensive to build out broadband in Alaska than in the lower 48 states. Changes such as these, together with the threat of more cuts and caps to come, have halted broadband build-out in rural Alaska for the foreseeable future, and without major changes to the FCC’s USF reforms, telecommunications providers like ASTAC will remain unable to make informed decisions about where and when to invest in the delivery of broadband for rural consumers.

Luckily, in Alaska, we are served by three members of our federal delegation who know these issues deeply and advocated strongly on behalf of all Alaskans with policymakers at the FCC and elsewhere. In his role as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, Congressman Don Young held two oversight hearings on the impact of USF reform on telecommunications providers serving tribal lands and other rural areas. He repeatedly cited the multiple errors ingrained in the FCC’s USF reforms and provided telecommunications providers from across the country an opportunity to shine a bright spotlight on such concerns.

Similarly, Senator Lisa Murkowski has used her position on the Senate Indian Affairs committee to question both Administration officials and telecommunications officials on the impact the FCC’s reform order has had on broadband build out. She repeatedly pushed Administration officials to find recommended fixes and sought ways to bring greater regulatory certainty to the program.

Finally, Senator Begich, from his position on the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees FCC operations, has been working with both the rest of the delegation and key lawmakers from other states who have voiced similar concerns about both the workings and the impacts of the FCC’s reforms. Senator Begich has sent a number of letters to the FCC calling for corrective changes to its reforms, and also hosted the former FCC Chairman on a visit to remote areas of Alaska.

As a result of the leadership from these three strong voices, we were happy to see the FCC recently provide some temporary relief from the reforms to small companies that serve Alaska. To be clear, there is much more work to do to create regulatory certainty and to build a sustainable broadband future for Alaska residents and businesses—but with these three leaders on our side, I know Alaskans are well represented in Washington, D.C. and that we have a fighting chance for more real progress.

• Steve Merriam is the CEO of Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Inc. (ASTAC) the incumbent telecommunications provider for the North Slope of Alaska.

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