High-speed, online access is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. And for those who live ?in rural areas, it can make a significant difference with respect to educational and employment opportunities. Health care can be provided in the most remote towns and villages where residents would otherwise have to travel significant distances and incur travel expenses, in addition to losing time at work and possibly putting their health in greater jeopardy. As such, we need to tackle all of the obstacles that keep consumers from purchasing broadband service.
In rural areas, the latest penetration numbers for broadband indicate that only 51 percent of consumers are connected to broadband. I know some rural areas see a higher penetration rate but, when on average, just over the majority of rural consumers are experiencing the benefits of broadband. I know and you know that we need to do better, not only for the sake of improving the economic opportunities of rural communities and individual citizens who live there, but also for the sake of the public and private investments being made in the networks, including the high-cost universal service funding.?
For your companies, in particular, I know that serving rural America means not only ?high-cost areas, but in many cases, low-income consumers, which contributes to our lower penetration rate. If we don’t address the cost of accessing the network for those consumers, then not only are we leaving them behind, we are not reaping the full rewards and value of our total investments in the networks. ?
I support the Chairman’s proposal to adopt as a goal for the Lifeline program the availability of broadband for low-income Americans. I also concur that, as a first step toward transitioning Lifeline to broadband, the commission should establish a “Broadband Adoption Pilot Program.” A pilot program to test and determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption among low-income consumers is a logical next step for modernizing the Lifeline program. ? ?
We need rural companies, such as yours, to apply for and participate in the pilot. I encourage you individually and as an organization, to collaborate with one another, as I understand that planning and executing a pilot may be resource-intensive. In fact, if sharing your resources and expertise in this endeavor is preferred, a consortium approach to the pilot may be the most effective and efficient way for you to proceed.?
I believe that your participation will be crucial because the low-income needs in rural ?America are very different than those in urban America. As you know, rural consumers are mostly more distant from community anchors, such as libraries and schools, and poverty can be more pervasive in rural areas. ?
At this time, I agree that the pilot program should address the cost of service, but the ?cost of service is not the only barrier that will need to be tackled. The cost of equipment and digital literacy are also other significant issues for low-income consumers. As such, it will be important that pilot participants are able to demonstrate how these issues will be handled in their proposals. ?
Fifty percent of today’s job opportunities require digital literacy skills and that is expected to grow to 77 percent within a decade. We need to provide the access and digital skills to every American. We all stand to benefit more if we do; and your companies know that this makes good business sense. It’s better for your bottom line to have more customers using broadband in the long run, and the communities you serve will be stronger due to the improved economic opportunities that ultimately will produce.
This column was excerpted from comments made by FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn at OPASTCO’s 49th Annual Winter Convention on Jan. 18. Contact the commissioner at Mignon.Clyburn@fcc.gov.