Rural connectivity is the focus

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr (left) and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine listen during a roundtable discussion at the VFW in Stanton on Tuesday afternoon on rural telecommunications issues, challenges and opportunities.

STANTON — Washington, D.C., got a better look at how Nebraska does business as U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and Brendan Carr, a commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission, spent much of Tuesday afternoon here.

Carr, an attorney who was appointed to be a commissioner in 2017, has been traveling across the country to learn about how technology and internet connectivity is utilized in rural America.

“We (the FCC) try to take trips outside of D.C. to see how our policies are affecting rural broadband providers,” Carr said.

Fischer and Carr toured the Stanton Telecom operations, where Carr was introduced to the company’s employees and saw how they provide services to the Stanton community. The two later met with about 20 telecommunications business leaders from across the state for a round-table discussion.

Among the issues brought up were the challenges businesses face in having to regularly invest in constantly changing technology and how they can retain and attract skilled workers to build and maintain the important infrastructure for rural Nebraska.

Fischer said the visit was important because broadband internet connectivity is something all Americans will need, comparing it to the long-established need for roads and electricity.

“Connectivity is important to everyone from Omaha to Scottsbluff and everywhere in between,” Fischer said. “That is the future of infrastructure.”

Carr agreed that fast, reliable internet access is important to all Americans.

“Great ideas are generated across this country,” Carr said. “If you lack the ability to spread those ideas, and put them online and put them on the market, it can hold you back.”

A critical issue going forward, according to Carr, is making sure federal funds are available to help rural providers upgrade their services.

“It’s incredibly capital intensive to deploy broadband in rural communities,” Carr said. “So we want to take a look and see how we can provide long-term stability to these providers.”

Many rural telecom companies rely on the FCC’s universal service fund, which allocates about $10 billion per year to telecommunications companies per year across the country, which companies like Stanton Telecom greatly depend on. But several representatives at Tuesday afternoon’s discussion said that revenue from the government is not as predictable as it once was, and many have been forced to make cuts.

Chuck Whitney, a vice president at Southeast Nebraska Communications based in Falls City, said his company lost a key employee, and because of lack of funding, the company could not afford to replace him.

Carr said the goal of the FCC is to open new ways of funding over longer periods of time and also cut federal regulation. Less densely populated areas need regulatory relief because providing service to a smaller number of customers makes it more financially challenging, he said.

“In D.C., we have so many regulations,” Carr said. “We want to cut red tape to decrease the cost of providing broadband. We want to end the regulatory state.”

Whitney also pointed out that he would have to look outside the local area to find a suitably skilled replacement for the departed employee, and the company’s financial situation would not be attractive to outside candidates.

Other representatives agreed, saying that fewer people are looking for jobs in rural areas.

Carr said he’s working with the U.S. Department of Labor to start apprenticeship programs to encourage workers to move to rural areas. Fischer was also optimistic there would be skilled workers available.

“Not everybody wants to live in the city. Not everybody wants to live in a real small apartment,” Fischer said.

Carr also said rural communities and farmers would benefit greatly from connectivity thanks to new technology. He said the use of data on farms can be used to increase yields by as much as 30 percent, and help with more efficient use of water, fertilizer and other inputs.

Fischer said there’s no exact time frame for when regulatory and financial change will come for rural providers, but said it’s a bipartisan issue with fairly wide support in the U.S. Senate.

The FCC also understands there is a lot of work to do in D.C. to help advance rural broadband connectivity, Carr said.

“There’s a lot of work to do between here and there,” he said, referring to the current situation and an ideal future where all Americans have fast, reliable internet.

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