While the nation’s eyes have been on results of this year’s historic presidential election, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to vote on changes to the Universal Service Fund (USF) that may dramatically reduce, or in some cases eliminate altogether, the support available today to expand rural cell phone service in Wisconsin, jeopardizing economic development and public safety in smaller communities.
The FCC has been considering various proposals for cutting the portion of the USF used to support the construction and expansion of cell phone and wireless communication technology in rural areas.
In Wisconsin, this vote places in jeopardy the $63 million currently made available for wireless, which would have been used to construct as many as 210 new cell phone towers per year in rural communities. On the whole, rural America could lose over $1 billion or more at a time when the nation’s economy is already in peril.
These cuts couldn’t come at a worse time for our country’s struggling economy. After taking extraordinary steps to prop up financial markets and grow the economy to the tune of $700 billion, it seems like a wrong turn to take over $1 billion away from rural America – money that would be invested in local economies to create and keep jobs, help struggling communities and develop critical communications infrastructure for the future.
Across America, business owners are increasingly relying on cell phones to manage operations. Missed calls and dropped calls can lead to missed opportunities and dropped client accounts. Small, rural businesses are increasingly packing up and moving to larger cities to find the advanced technology they need to compete in today’s marketplace. When this happens, America’s rural economic base suffers – as do family farms, main street businesses and rural schools.
The proposed cuts also pose a significant threat to public safety. In rural Wisconsin, as in other parts of rural America, public safety officials and organizations are speaking out about how important it is to have reliable wireless service. First responders like firefighters and police officers rely on cell phones to assist in search and rescue operations, domestic violence situations, undercover activities and aid communications in areas where police radio is unsecure or unavailable. Additionally, nearly 300,000 emergency 9-1-1 calls are placed via cell phones every day nationwide.
For victims of domestic violence, reliable wireless service can literally mean the difference between life and death. Deputies responding to domestic violence disputes in rural communities need to obtain crucial situational information, but often have trouble getting through to the home of the victim. Also, spotty wireless service can hamper a woman’s ability to contact hotlines and emergency services or report an incidence of violence.
Opinion polls conducted in Wisconsin earlier this year show that nearly nine out of ten Wisconsinites feel it is important to have reliable and consistent cellular phone coverage in rural areas for personal and public safety. Nearly 75 percent also said reliability of service, wireless coverage and call quality are the most important wireless issues they want the federal government to address.
The opinion poll – commissioned by Connecting Rural America – also found that Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support the use of federal Universal Service Fund (USF) dollars to build and expand cell phone and wireless communication technology in rural areas.
I am proud to say that U.S. Cellular has led the effort to preserve federal support for rural wireless development through Connecting Rural America, a grassroots coalition of concerned citizens, community leaders and elected officials working for equality in wireless telecommunications. Its goal is to provide rural communities with the same access to technology as their urban counterparts.
John Rooney is president and chief executive officer of U.S. Cellular. For additional information, visit www.connectingruralamerica.org.