The FCC's new plan to fund rural broadband

Women use their laptop computers at a wireless cafe in Beijing on July 3, 2009.

You might not have ever noticed the line item marked USF on your phone bill but it's there. It stands for Universal Service Fund, a revenue stream we all chip into with a small amount so that rural areas can have phone service. A new plan announced by the FCC yesterday would reroute that money to rural broadband Internet access instead. The thinking is that if these communities are wired up to the net, they could fully participate in the modern job market and the modern communications era while making phone calls on Skype or other web-based services.

We talk to Michael Copps about this. He's one of the five FCC commissioners and he says, "We have a system that's broken, frankly and if we don't do this job right, we could end up -- even though we have this wonderful new technology -- with a greater gap than we have right now. We could put the affluent urban neighborhoods farther ahead and the rural isolated communities farther behind than they are now and that would be a real tragedy when you have this technology that can create opportunity and bridge gaps and bring people together and allow it not to serve those noble purposes."

Copps says this would benefit everyone, not just the people in these remote locations: "You get a country that's better informed, better connected, better educated, more competitive, creating jobs, needing less in the way of subsidy or help from the rest of America. There's an aspect of this broadband that doesn't get talked about enough but it has to do with our civic dialogue, our media and news and information. Broadband has a tremendous capacity to inform and to enlighten. If we go about our job right, maybe we can pave the next town square of democracy with broadband bricks, but that's going to take a lot of work."

We had a chance to ask Copps about the ongoing debate over net neutrality rules as well. The FCC has issued official rules on the policy but has been met with lawsuits that may block those rules from becoming officially established. Many critics say that the Internet is an information service, a category that the FCC can't regulate. Copps, the FCC, and their supporters maintain that the Internet is an advanced communication system, which the FCC does oversee.

Copps is frustrated about the debate. "We are the only country in the world that has gone down this road of parsing semantics," he says, "and getting involved in a decade-long debate over important public policy issue that deserves to resolved right now."

So does the FCC have that authority? "You bet," says Copps. "I think we have title to authority to call these advanced telecommunications services what they are. They're telecommunications."

Also in this show, the Cycle-In Cinema in London lets you bike in, hook up your bike to a generator, and watch a movie as long as you keep biking. We did not run this story just to have an excuse to run clips from "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Napoleon Dynamite," but it would have been totally defensible if we had.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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