May 23, 2018
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Reducing rural phone service support means less high-speed Internet, too

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Ben Sanborn, Special to the BDN

In the Nov. 17 Bangor Daily News, an editorial regarding universal service posed the question of how “Maine ensures its most rural residents have access to the telecommunications services they need for public safety purposes and for simply getting along in the 21st century.”

Many rural residents rely on 21 independent phone companies to provide essential communication services on a physical network of poles and wires. For 100 years these 21 independent phone companies have had a mandated and regulated responsibility to provide basic service to every home and business in every corner of every town within their service area.

To fulfill and support that commitment, hundreds of millions of dollars of capital investments have been made to build, maintain and upgrade the network infrastructure and equipment. Though the pole and wire networks initially were developed for the land lines that powered the phone jacks we see in our walls, they have evolved into the heart and soul of Maine’s high-speed Internet and cellular communication services. Without the pole and wire network, a call from a cellphone would travel to a cellular tower and stop. The infrastructure is what carries the call between customers. Without the poles and wires, there is no telecommunication.

Simply put, wireless needs wires.

Each phone bill in Maine contains a universal service fee. This fee, distributed evenly to all phone customers, helps to offset some of the cost of expanding, repairing and maintaining the physical communications network in Maine’s rural areas in order to comply with federal law, which requires that all Americans have access to comparable service at comparable rates regardless of where they live.

This fee is designated to support the rural network and has no impact on the state’s general fund budget.

This fee has allowed the most rural of Maine’s residents to have reliable communication services at reasonable rates. These services also are relied upon by public safety professionals to ensure prompt communication in crisis as well as businesses that create economic development opportunities throughout our state. Moreover, the facilities used for voice service also are used for broadband service.

By supporting the basic infrastructure for voice service, the customers of Maine’s independent rural providers are already, in essence, gaining a broadband network as well. This “buy one get one free” approach has helped bring broadband service to the vast majority of the customers of the independent rural service providers. If universal service support is reduced or eliminated, then these broadband opportunities in rural Maine will be reduced and eliminated with it.

It’s our opinion that residents of rural Maine deserve to have reliable and trusted communication services. We believe that public safety and economic development are matters of great importance to the vibrancy and quality of life in Maine.

We would ask that if you feel the same to please share that opinion with your elected representatives today.

Ben Sanborn is executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine.

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