Some thoughts on how to fix rural broadband programs

by on April 13, 2018 · 0 comments

Expanding rural broadband has generated significant interest in recent years. However, the current subsidy programs are often mismanaged and impose little accountability. It’s not clear what effect rural broadband subsidies have had, despite the amount of money spent on it. As economist Scott Wallsten has pointed out, the US government has spent around $100 billion on rural telecommunications and broadband since 1995 “without evidence that it has improved adoption.”

So I was pleased to hear a few months ago that the Montana Public Service Commission was making an inquiry into how to improve rural broadband subsidy programs. Montana looms large in rural broadband discussions because Montana telecommunications providers face some of the most challenging terrain the US–mountainous, vast, and lightly-populated. (In fact, “no bars on your phone” in rural Montana is a major plot element in the popular videogame Far Cry 5. HT Rob Jackson.)

I submitted comments in the Montana PSC proceeding and received an invitation to testify at a hearing on the subject. So last week I flew to Helena to discuss rural broadband programs with the PSC and panelists. I emphasized three points.

  • Federal broadband subsidy programs are facing higher costs and fewer beneficiaries.

Using FCC data, I calculated that since 1998, USF high-cost subsidies to Montana telecom companies have risen by about 40% while the number of rural customers served by those companies have decreased by over 50%. I suspect these trends are common nationally, and that USF subsidies are increasing while fewer people are benefiting.

  • Wireless broadband is the future, especially in rural areas.

“Fiber everywhere” is not a wise use of taxpayer funds and exurban and rural households are increasingly relying on wireless–from satellite, WISPs, and mobile. In 2016, the CDC reported that more households had wireless phone than landline phone service. You’re starting to see “cord cutting” pick up for broadband as well. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, that percentage had doubled, and about 20% of households were mobile-only. The percentage is likely even higher today now that unlimited data plans are common. Someday soon the FCC will have to conclude that mobile broadband is a substitute for fixed broadband, and subsidy programs should reflect that.

  • Consumer-focused “tech vouchers” would be a huge improvement over current broadband programs.

Current programs subsidize the construction of networks even where there’s no demand. The main reason the vast majority of non-Internet users don’t subscribe to broadband is that they are uninterested in subscribing, according to surveys from the NTIA (55% are uninterested), Pew (70% are uninterested), and FCC and Connected Nation experts (63% are uninterested). With rising costs and diminishing returns to rural fiber construction, the FCC needs to reevaluate USF and make subsidies more consumer-focused. The UK for a couple years has pursued another model for rural broadband: consumer broadband vouchers. Since most people who don’t subscribe to broadband don’t want it, vouchers protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense and paying for gold-plated services.

For years, economists and the GAO have criticized the structure, complexity, and inefficiency of the USF programs, and particularly the rural program. The FCC is constantly changing the programs because of real and perceived deficiencies, but this has made the USF unwieldy. Montana providers participate in at least seven different rural USF programs alone (that doesn’t include the other USF programs and subprograms or other federal help, like RUS grants).

Unfortunately, most analysis and reporting on US broadband programs can be summed up as “don’t touch the existing programs–just send more money.” (There are some exceptions and scrutiny of the programs, like Tony Romm’s 2015 Politico investigation into the mismanagement of stimulus-funded Ag Department broadband projects.)

“Journalism as advocacy” is unfortunately the norm when it comes to broadband policy. Take, for instance, this article about the digital divide that omits mention of the $100 billion spent in rural areas alone, only to conclude that “small [broadband] companies and cooperatives are going it more or less alone, without much help yet from the federal government.”

(That story and another digital divide story had other problems, namely, a reliance on an academic study using faulty data purchased from a partisan campaign firm. FiveThirtyEight deserves credit for acknowledging the data’s flaws but that should have alerted the editors on the need for still more fact-checking.) 

States can’t rewrite federal statutes and regulations but it’s to the Montana PSC’s great credit that they sensed that all is not well. Current trends will only put more stress on the programs. Hopefully other state PUCs will see that the current programs do a disservice for universal service objectives and consumers.

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