As Congress prepares to address telecom reform for the second time in 10 years, four associations have formed the Coalition to Keep America Connected.
The Independent Telephone & Telecommunications Alliance, National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies and the Western Telecommunications Alliance held a press conference today announcing the new coalition, whose chief concern is the security of the $6.5 billion Universal Service Fund (USF).
The group will lobby Congress, acting as the voice of the consumer, representatives said today. Any rewrites need to include a Universal Service Fund component, said Randy Houdek, general manager of Venture Communications in Highmore, S.D.
Members of various cooperatives including the Oregon Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Missouri and the Montana chapter of the American Telemedicine Association shared stories of life in rural areas, where accessing health care and educational services often requires extensive planning and travel.
For example, if it was not for the USF Rural Health Care program, which supports telecom costs for rural health care providers, one Montana hospital that serves a population of one person per square mile would have to pay the $3,000 per-month fee for its T1 connection, said Thelma McClosky Armstrong, who heads the Montana chapter of the American Telemedicine Association. That would total $36,000 per year, or three times the hospitals capital budget, she explained.
Rural America considers [the USF] a lifeline, she added.
The coalition aims to keep a digital divide from occurring, said Bob Williams, president of Oregon Farmers Mutual Telephone. The goal here today is to ensure all consumers have access to the latest technology and remain connected to our global world, he said.
The town of Oregon does not have a hospital; doctors are 30-50 miles away, so having a T1 connection saves residents from traveling to receive test results, for example. Students also are able to take advantage of the bandwidth, using videoconferencing to take classes they do not have locally.
The Coalition to Keep America Connected in July polled 800 voters to gauge Americans views on the USF. The survey found 70 percent of respondents agreed with arguments to keep the USF, while 45 percent sided with the put a stop to the USF argument.
The four associations formation of the coalition means we can make an impact on the Hill, and we will very much put all our efforts toward doing that because we think its the lifeblood of our consumers, said Williams.
One of the first initiatives on the coalitions to-do list is to review already-introduced legislation and prepare information for congressional leaders about specific issues that impact rural consumers, says Shirley Bloomfield of NCTA and a member of the Coalition to Keep America Connected steering committee. The group also will talk to Congress and others about what consumers think of U.S. telecom policies. Meanwhile, the coalition will continue driving membership and developing materials for consumers and organizations.