PC Telcom, Viaero Wireless weigh in on changes to rural telecom funding
On Jan. 1, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission repurposed more than half of its fund dedicated to rural telephone subsidies for rural broadband development.
The shift was prompted by a 2018 state Senate bill that aims to expand broadband infrastructure and, consequently, economic opportunities in rural areas.
Despite pushback from CenturyLink, which received the majority of telephone subsidies in the state, local provider Viaero Wireless is optimistic that the shift will have a net positive impact on rural Colorado, and PC Telcom CEO Vince Kropp said his company believes the impact of the change will be neutral.
Viaero’s Vice President of Government and Business Jon Vecker said the change will allow the company to expand services and offer its products to more people.
“The bill proves that rural Colorado still needs help in how we provide broadband,” he said. “We know that it will be a boost to us.”
Vecker also praised the process for seeking grant funds from the state. Providers looking to develop an area will submit proposals in a competitive process that protects existing coverage areas and prevents overbuilding.
“Everyone is going to benefit from this money coming through,” he said.
Kropp said the ability to build out more infrastructure will not have a large effect on the company. Because Holyoke is already connected to high-speed internet, grants will not be used to build up infrastructure in town.
“This won’t have a really big impact on us,” he said.
Last year, the company announced that they had seen a greater number of broadband subscriptions than telephone lines for the first time in its history.
“We really have transitioned to a broadband company,” he said. “We still provide voice, but for all intents and purposes, it’s delivered over a broadband network.”
Kropp was careful to say that it is too soon to determine whether the rollback of telephone subsidies and changes in federal policy will force the company to increase rates down the road.
In February 2018, the Federal Communications Commission released its annual report on the nationwide deployment of broadband, revealing a narrowing but persistent disparity between internet access in rural and urban areas.
According to the FCC’s analysis, only 68.6 percent of Americans living in rural areas have access to mobile and terrestrial broadband that meets the agency’s speed benchmarks, compared with 97.9 percent of urban residents.
Broadband access for all Americans has become a hot-button political issue as the internet has become more indispensable as a method of communication. However, the costs of laying and maintaining high-speed infrastructure in underserved areas often outweigh the financial reward for providers.
Colorado’s Senate Bill 18-002 has already redirected 60 percent of the state’s High-Cost Support Mechanism — a fund established in 1995 and supported by a surcharge on telephone bills to regularly support rural telephone carriers — toward rural broadband development. That percentage will increase until 2023, when the HCSM is projected to run out of money.
A second bill passed by the state legislature in 2018 — Senate Bill 18-104 — also directed the state’s broadband deployment board to petition the FCC by Jan. 1 for a waiver to receive federal funds reserved for developing broadband in remote areas of the country.