Rural connectivity is worth the fight

In a world where connectivity is a necessity for healthcare, education, commerce, emergencies and basic living, the Texas Universal Service Fund (TUSF) has helped build and maintain the connectivity rural residents enjoy today. Unfortunately, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is currently defunding these rural networks without taking a single vote or developing a backup plan for rural Texans. Therefore, I am calling on the new PUC commissioners to immediately hold a hearing and perform their statutory duty to keep the TUSF fully funded.

Not unlike the power grid, the system of global connectivity is dependent on a viable network in sparsely populated areas. However, the cost of providing connectivity in rural areas of Texas, as well as nationwide, is cost prohibitive under any economic business model. The TUSF collects and distributes dollars dedicated to underwriting the high cost of providing basic telephone services in cost-prohibitive areas through TUSF fees found in telephone bills. If not for the TUSF, many rural customers would pay thousands of dollars a year for basic telephone service.

The commission has known about the steep decline of revenues in the TUSF for nearly two years, but it has not taken any discernible action to address the growing crisis they created. This is in despite of legislative hearings, letters from legislators, and meetings with the commissioners and the governor’s office. During one such hearing, PUC staff acknowledged that current law requires the commission to keep the fund whole.

Rural connectivity is the great equalizer and it allows people to thrive in every corner of our state. Rural Texans are the same people that produce the food, fiber and fuel our state and nation depends on. Furthermore, the same line that is used to provide basic telephone service also provides broadband internet to rural customers. As it becomes more difficult to maintain, afford, and service these fiber lines, we will see a regression in the statewide goal of bringing quality and affordable broadband to rural customers.

Governor Greg Abbott vetoed legislation that would have financially helped the TUSF. This veto has advanced fears that financing will disappear, long-term debt will default, direct industry jobs in those exchanges will be lost, and communities will find themselves isolated from a world that demands connectivity.

The TUSF funds the high-cost provider network. There are no other providers willing to service, build out or provide the same quality of connectivity to these areas. The uncertainty created by the veto and lack of action by the PUC has created unnecessary angst. The PUC can correct this with one meeting.

The 87th Legislature made a commitment to bring broadband and connectivity to all Texans. It is now time for the PUC and the governor to also honor that commitment. Time is of the essence.

State Sen. Charles Perry represents 51 West Texas counties and is chairman of the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs.