A post I did earlier this week about the Great Disconnect initiative spearheaded by some rural Iowa telcos drew a slew of responses, including an email from National Broadband Plan crafter Blair Levin—which lead to a phone call with him yesterday.

Levin has drawn a lot of criticism from rural telcos, including those behind the Great Disconnect, for recommendations made in the NBP—particularly the 4 Mb/s target speed proposed for the impending broadband Universal Service fund. I agree with rural telcos that 4 Mb/s is too low and I said so in my post. What some readers objected to was my view that a 100 Mb/s USF target is asking too much right now.

Levin contacted me because he wanted the opportunity to reiterate a couple of key points that have consistently guided his thinking about USF reform—the first of which sometimes gets lost amid all the other discussion.

His first point: As the Universal Service program transitions to broadband, the first priority should be to get broadband to people who can’t get it today, rather than to increase speeds for people who already get broadband.

His second point: It is not possible to achieve both of these goals without increasing the size of the high-cost fund.

The second point is what gets rural telcos’ blood boiling. Some rural telco stakeholders responded to my recent post by arguing that broadband should be a sufficiently important priority that we, as a nation, should be willing to increase the money we devote to it to ensure that everyone has equal access–and I don’t disagree with that. The question is how we get there.

I asked Levin couldn’t we find a way to raise additional funding for broadband by broadening the base of companies that contribute to Universal Service to include broadband providers? He said he believes there is too much political sentiment against a larger high-cost fund, even if the cost to current payers remains the same.

It’s true that various policymakers have expressed concerns that the Universal Service program is out of control—and considering the very large payments that have gone to a few unusually high-cost providers, these concerns are not without justification. Levin likes to point to the example of the $17,000 that was spent in one year to help bring service to a vacation home.

 

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I like to remind people who raise these concerns that the average rural telco collects a few hundred dollars per line per year. Nevertheless, there is some waste in the Universal Service program—and Levin’s argument is that until reformers can demonstrate that steps have been taken to curb the waste that is in the program, there will be little support outside the rural telco community for increasing the fund size.

Levin made kind of an “Ask not what your country can do for you” argument. Rural telcos, he said, shouldn’t be talking about how they will collect money from the fund. Instead, he said, the focus should be on how the money is spent.

“What we have to tell the American public is that we’re solving the problem Congress asked us to solve,” he said. “Until we do that we can’t say we want to collect a lot more money.”

I suspect some members of the Telecompetitor community will disagree?