The past few decades have been one of breathtaking change in telephone communications technology. Nowadays, we Texans are able to connect with family, friends and business associates via traditional landline telephones, and through video, voice and data communications delivered over integrated wireline and wireless networks.
Despite this remarkable leap in technology, universally available landline phone service continues to be a top priority for anyone living and working in a rural community across the state.
As a representative of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, the one thing I have learned is that reliable, accessible communication is the most important resource we can have in an emergency. It can literally mean the difference between saving a life and losing a life.
The Lone Star State has the nation’s largest rural population. We have 185 counties with an average population of 13,000. When a hurricane, tornado, wildfire or other natural disaster strikes a remote area, emergency responders have to be able to rely on wireline phone and broadband networks to communicate.
Recently, Texas senators passed Senate Bill 583, which right sizes the Texas Universal Service Fund (USF) by guaranteeing $96 million in savings. The bill strikes a balance between saving money and ensuring rural Texans have access to landline phone service. Unless the House of Representatives passes this vital piece of legislation, some rural towns could permanently go without landline phone service and emergency responders might not be able respond to 9-1-1 calls.
State lawmakers created the state USF program in 1987 to help ensure affordable phone service is available to as many Texans as possible – including schools and libraries, health care providers and emergency first responders, and those living in rural areas where the costs of providing telephone service is substantially higher than in metropolitan and suburban communities.
The Legislature gave the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) the authority to implement the USF program, which is financed by a 4.3 percent surcharge on all taxable telecommunications receipts of Texas’ telecommunications providers. Providers are allowed to pass these costs to residential and business customers on their monthly telephone bills.
Approximately $430 million is disbursed annually through the fund to the Relay Texas and Specialized Telecommunications Assistance Programs, the Tel-Assistance, Lifeline and Link Up programs, and the Small Local Exchange Carriers Universal Service Fund, and the Texas High-Cost Universal Service Plan.
Under Senate Bill 583, the total amount of the Texas USF monies available to larger telephone companies that serve in cities and communities throughout the state would be capped.
Medium sized providers – those with more than 31,000 customers – would be required to meet a “needs test” developed and supervised by the PUC. Otherwise, support will be cut by 25 percent annually for 3 years beginning in 2017. This “needs test” would include a review of company financial records, an analysis of the real cost of service to rural Texas, and the presence of competition to determine the level of state USF support needed.
Small providers with fewer than 31,000 customers would continue to receive a predictable level of support until the end of 2017. Regrettably, Texas is being forced to carry the financial burden for universal support on it own because the federal government is working to end or dramatically limit support for landline service in high-cost rural areas, focusing instead on growing America’s wireless and broadband networks.
While wireless and broadband service continues to expand throughout the state, there are still large chunks of rural Texas that are not served. Wireless towers are strategically placed in high-density areas of the state and along major highways. Outlying areas do not have consistently reliable coverage from cell phone towers. Without the network of poles, buried cables and other infrastructure, there would be no wireline, broadband, or wireless service available to any metropolitan, suburban or rural area of the state.
Even universal service fund skeptics must recognize that every single business, school, hospital, police and fire department in Texas relies on dependable landline phone service. Neither wireless, nor satellite, service is reliable or robust enough to consistently be trusted in essential or emergency situations. If we don’t change course, we threaten to literally hang up on rural Texans in an emergency.
By Chris Barron
Chris Barron is the executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.