Reflections on the Massachusetts Broadband Conference
The Massachusetts Broadband Conference was a juxtaposition of varying speakers and topics, most contained under two subject headers: sustainable broadband adoption and the economic benefits of connectivity. Speakers such as Bill Oates, the City of Boston’s CIO, and Judy Dumont, Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, discussed the benefits and applications of broadband as well as more recent expansion projects throughout the state, particularly MassBroadband 123. MassBroadband 123 is a broadband expansion project that will build 1,300 miles of fiber optic throughout western and central Massachusetts. The network is quite similar to Maine’s own Three Ring Binder Network in its goal: to expand high speed access to the rural regions of the state where there is currently sub par or no connectivity options.
Though the panelist discussions were interesting, in my opinion, it was the two main speakers that most of the audience came to hear. The first, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, gave a riveting address on the importance of expanding broadband. He stated, “Access is still too far from universal and we can no more afford to have a community without access to broadband as we can have a community without access to a good school or decent road.” Towards the conclusion of his speech, Governor Patrick highlighted his frustration with the lack of action in Congress on these matters. “We know these kinds of investments work. That is not a partisan opinion. It is a proven fact. And if you agree with it, get on the phone and on your email and contact members of this do-nothing congress.” Governor Patrick is at the forefront in promotion of the broadband growth which was made apparent by the fervor in his voice.
The second keynote speaker was FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who addressed the recent reforms to the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF is a $4.5 billion fund that, following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, expanded the definition of universal service and previously directed monies towards landline phone service. Commissioner Clyburn referenced that universal service reform began roughly 18 months ago after the release of the National Broadband Plan. Commissioner Clyburn stated that “On October 27, the FCC took a momentous step to reform the Universal Service Fund in order to transform it from a fund that supports voice telephone service in high-cost area, to one that will also explicitly provide for the deployment of broadband networks.” She continued her remarks saying, “. . .broadband access is the gateway by which most Americans obtain critical information, services, and communicate with each other.” Referring to the 18 million Americans that currently lack broadband-capable networks as exposed by the National Broadband Map, Commissioner Clyburn reminded the audience of the challenges American’s face finding jobs, operating businesses, or even doing one’s homework in rural regions.
According to Commissioner Clyburn, USF reform will do the following:
- Provide for speedy broadband deployment to underserved consumers, with an increase in capital in 2012 for fixed and mobile technologies
- Ensure that money will shift from supporting multiple networks, in areas that do not need support, to areas where broadband is needed
- Require that providers meet hard deadlines in accounting for how the money was spent with oversight coming from the FCC and State Commissions
- Require that all recipients of USF deploy broadband networks in addition to offering voice service
The economic benefits that could develop from the USF reforms are astounding. Commissioner Clyburn remarked that an estimated 500,000 new jobs in rural America will be created, with economic benefits in these areas reaching a possible $700 million and nationally at a potential $50 billion. The needed expansion of broadband is something that we feel very strongly about at GWI and it is nice to see that members of the FCC are in agreement. We look forward to hearing in more detail about how this plan will develop, as the discussion and information on the USF reforms are only in their infancy. Commissioner Clyburn said, “It is no secret that I have a deep connection to rural America, and I believe our reforms will ensure that those citizens who live and work in rural America will be able to compete in our global economy.” We sure hope so.