Opening Statement of Chairman Ted Stevens
Hearing on Rural Communications
March 7, 2006
We have had a series of hearings on communications and today we look at the crucial issue of rural communications.
This hearing will address the issues, other than the Universal Service Fund which we have already held hearings on, that relate to ensuring that all Americans, whether they live in urban, rural or insular areas, have access to basic and advanced communications at of comparable quality and reasonably comparable rates.
We have a range of issues--the role of loans and grants by the Department of Agriculture, inter-carrier compensation (the system of a phone company paying another phone company to carry its traffic), the potential for the use of unlicensed spectrum to accelerate broadband deployment, and the challenges of improving communication service on tribal lands and in very rural areas.
All of these topics have our attention, but the issue of inter-carrier compensation is particularly important as we consider revising our communications laws. Inter-carrier compensation reform has huge implications for all carriers but small, rural phone companies who rely heavily on the revenues from access charges stand to lose the most if reform is not carefully crafted. Also, the issue of deploying broadband to all Americans remains one of special concern to this Committee.
Daniel K. InouyeSenator
I am pleased that we are having this hearing today to discuss the level of communications services available to rural America, outstanding needs that still must be met, and how best to meet those needs.
As we think about the challenges facing rural America, particularly in remote, isolated areas, we should remember that it was not all that long ago when large sections of the country did not have electricity, let alone telephone service. The Congress determined that some services were so essential to our nation’s well-being, they must be deployed everywhere, even if the undertaking required government support. Financial realities often prohibit the private investment necessary to build communications systems in remote parts of our nation.
Indeed, these concerns prompted members of this Committee to draft section 254 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which explicitly created the Universal Service Fund. I am, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of the Universal Service Fund. As our nation continues to become more dependent upon the instantaneous exchange of information, universal service will continue to help provide all Americans with access to high-speed communications and all its benefits.
To reach that future, however, we need to consider reforms that will strengthen current support mechanisms, rationalize our current system of intercarrier payments, and eliminate opportunities for arbitrage.
Native Americans and tribal communities face particular difficulties accessing advanced communications services. Today’s hearing also allows us to review their situation in particular, and to reaffirm the trust relationship between the United States government and tribal communities. Toward that end, I am particularly pleased that the General Accountability Office has been invited to share the results of their recent report on the challenges faced by Native Americans in providing communications services on tribal lands.
In response to this report, I am introducing legislation today, along with my colleagues Senators Stevens, Dorgan, Burns, and McCain to clarify the eligibility of certain tribal libraries for E-rate funds. The legislation also addresses the lack of reliable data regarding Internet subscribership in sparsely populated areas of the country, including data for residents on tribal lands. It is my hope that progress on this legislation – along with S. 585, the Native American Connectivity Act currently pending before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee – will help us meet our trust responsibilities.
Finally, today’s hearing gives us the opportunity to consider how innovative, low-cost technologies, such as those used by wireless Internet service providers are attempting to bridge the digital divide in rural America.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Thomas DorrUndersecretary, Rural Development AuthorityU.S. Department of Agriculture
Mr. Mark K. JohnsonCommissionerRegulatory Commission of Alaska
Mr. Ray BaumCommissionerUtility Commission of Oregon
Mr. Bill SquiresSenior Vice President and General CounselBlackfoot Telephone Cooperative
Mr. Larry SarjeantVice President, Federal, Legislative, and Regulatory AffairsQwest Communications
Mr. Craig MundieSenior Vice President of Advanced Strategies and policyMicrosoft
Mr. Mark GoldsteinDirector, Physical Infrastructure IssuesU.S. Government Accountability Office
Mr. Joe GarciaPresidentNational Congress of American Indians