Late last week, Ajit Pai, one of the two newest Federal Communications Commissioners, participated in a rural broadband roundtable in his home state of Kansas, hosted by CenturyLink, which is in the process of deploying broadband in Oswego, Kansas, and other small towns across the country.

“I spend a lot of time these days thinking about broadband deployment. And, as you may know, I grew up about 20 miles from here in Parsons,” he said. “I care deeply about rural America, and I believe that being raised in a small town like Parsons gives me a unique set of experiences that informs my worldview.” He then addressed what he called the “depopulation” of rural America, which he considers to be a serious issue.

“Take Kansas,” Pai said. “In the last decade, the population dropped in 77 of our 105 counties. Here in Labette County, our population has declined in every census since 1920. Our population has fallen 38 percent from its peak. A similar story could be repeated in almost every county, every city and every town in rural America.”

Pai cited three reasons for rural flight:

>> Young people leave in search of better economic opportunities.
>> Parents depart in order to provide their children with more educational options.
>> Senior citizens abandon communities where they have lived all of their lives in order to obtain easier access to the medical care they need.

“To put it very simply, this is a tragedy,” he said. “We cannot ignore the challenges facing rural areas; they are as much a part of the national fabric as our biggest cities.”

The fourth reason people leave their rural roots, according to Pai, is lack of access to broadband services, including the Internet. “A broadband connection can enable a small businesswoman in Oswego to market her products to a nationwide audience, not just to people in Labette County,” he pointed out. “High-speed Internet access can make available more educational options for rural students and those seeking job training. And strong broadband infrastructure can supply better access to medical care, via telemedicine, to citizens of all ages.”

Two Diverse Solutions

The commissioner believes there are two ways to solve rural broadband-access problems, the first being creation of a regulatory environment that encourages the private sector to invest in and upgrade rural broadband networks.

“Broadband networks in more densely populated areas are the most profitable; networks in more sparsely populated areas are the least,” Pai noted. “So if the regulatory environment is unfavorable, broadband service providers are likely to jettison their rural investments first. This is one of the reasons why it is so important that we work at all levels of government to remove regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment and to stop new ones from being created.”

The second way to start to solve the rural broadband dilemma involves the Universal Service Fund and how to handle its reform. “Some will want it to be bigger; others will call for it to be reduced,” Pai said. “But we should all agree on at least one thing: Whatever amount we choose to spend, we should strive to get the most bang for our buck. This means that future funding needs to be stable and predictable so that companies can make long-term investments.”

He continued, “We also need a transparent system for distributing funds, one that companies can understand to plan their investments and that government watchdogs can follow to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. And simplicity is essential if the system is going to work; we cannot create a regulatory framework so complicated that the only people who understand it work at the FCC.”

In conclusion, the rural Kansan said, “In short, my goal is for rural America to reap all of the benefits of a 21st-century communications infrastructure—one that connects the city with the country and the suburbs with small towns. All Americans, no matter where they live, should be able to share in the bounty of the communications marketplace.”

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