Caucus Calls on Lawmakers to Protect Rural Interests in Telecom Reform

In support of small phone companies and consumers in rural America, more than 60 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter outlining principles Congress should adopt when reforming telecommunications law.

The principles endorsed by the Congressional Rural Caucus called on lawmakers to preserve federal subsidies that support nationwide telecom services at affordable rates by requiring all providers of two-way communications to make universal service contributions regardless of the technology they use.

Rural phone companies are entitled to use the monies from the Universal Service Fund to support their customers.

The Congressional Rural Caucus said the Universal Service Fund should be continued to be funded by the communications industry rather than through general tax revenues. The FCC is preparing to change the rules governing how money in the multibillion dollar fund is contributed and subsequently dispersed.

The nations universal service system effectively yields the highest possible level of telecommunications connectivity among the public, the letter stated. Today the program emphasizes an assurance that necessary cost recovery is available to those that make the commitment to serve the nations most economically challenged markets.

The letter was sent to Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican chairing the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation are moving along to reform the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican chairing the Senate Commerce Committee, said last week he directed his staff to prepare telecom legislation.

As Congress prepares to rewrite the Telecom Act, its critical that rural America has a seat at the table, said Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican who is the co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus Telecommunications Task Force. Whether you live in Washington, D.C. or Waldorf, Minnesota, access to telecommunications infrastructure is critically important.

In the letter to Barton and Dingell, lawmakers also outlined other principles that hold large ramifications for rural phone companies and represent dilemmas facing federal regulators in the District of Columbia.

One of the principles cited in the letter noted carriers must be compensated for traffic going over their networks. The FCC is working to reform intercarrier compensation, the Byzantine regime by which telecommunications carriers compensate one another to complete calls.

Similar to their reliance on the Universal Service Fund, rural phone companies depend heavily on revenue they collect from other carriers and are worried that their bottom line could suffer when the rules are changed.

Lawmakers also said service providers must be obligated to allow other providers to interconnect with their networks regardless of the technology used.

Groups representing rural phone companies praised the Congressional Rural Caucus for adopting the principles.

Those groups included the Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA), the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA), the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telephone Companies (OPASTCO) and the Western Telecommunications Alliance (WTA).

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