Of all the infrastructure that makes a community tick — from its roads and bridges to water, sewer and reliable electric service — internet is probably the least visible. But it’s just as important as the rest, not only because it tethers businesses to customers and suppliers in other states and countries, but because it supports the education of children as well as the health and quality of life of all who live there.
Every year the Federal Communications Commission supports education, health care and basic internet service by steering $10.2 billion from telecom companies into connectivity in places that might otherwise get left behind. The money helps make sure public libraries and classrooms have sufficiently fast internet connections. It ensures internet connections in rural areas, particularly for hospitals and doctors offices. And it helps low-income families afford reliable internet.
Unfortunately the FCC is now making plans to restrict the fund. It wants to cap overall spending as well as the money flowing through individual programs. While the idea seems sensible at some level — an FCC notice cites the need to control fees passed onto ratepayers, who ultimately support the fund — the process is raising concerns about whether this is at heart an effort to curtail programs that are essential to many cities and towns.
And doing that would be a grave mistake, as it could relegate parts of the United States and New England to the fringes of technology and the economy.
To be sure, the government already controls spending of programs within the so-called Universal Service Fund. Thus the White House and Congress now have their hands on the levers of how much is charged to internet providers and their customers to support these programs. What’s more, White House projections show the fund growing at less than 1% over the next five years. A proposed cap would only serve to bind the decisions of future administrations and commissioners, not only in how much is spent overall but in how much is directed into individual programs.
On Thursday a group of 30 U.S. senators — including all four from Massachusetts and New Hampshire — sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calling the proposal an “assault on the FCC’s mission of bridging the digital divide.” The programs served by the fund, they write, “have enjoyed bipartisan support for decades and reflect the underlying goals of communication policy in our country.”
“We believe that all … of these programs should be able to continue to operate and thrive independently without the constraint of a universal cap,” they wrote.” Those who benefit from the programs “should also be able to rely on consistent funding ... and without living in fear that their funding will be slashed in order to provide for the other equally deserving programs.”
Internet connectivity may not seem like a local issue; the vast majority of schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire report adequate bandwidth, according to the group Education Superhighway, though according to the group’s research there are areas that could use improvement, Derry and Lawrence among them.
But restricting funding for the universal access programs, particularly those supporting schools and public libraries, could turn back progress by removing a key piece of support.
It’s too soon to know if and how caps would affect the FCC programs serving classrooms, rural communities and low-income households. It seems likely that any effects would not be immediate but long-term. Still, the commission should tread carefully lest it endanger years of hard work to ensure that isolated or low-income areas aren’t left behind.