Patrick B. McGuigan
In a commentary for USA Today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said last week that rural access to high-speed Internet has dramatic potential to uplift rural economies. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau and others in the Sooner State are backing a proposed telecommunications business merger they believe will advance such access dramatically.
Genachowski pointed to one instance in which improved broadband access sparked a rural business: “Blue Valley Meats, located in the tiny town of Diller, Neb., may not sound like a high-tech company, but broadband enabled this small business to sell beef online and increase revenues by 40% and more than double its workforce, even during the darkest days of the recession.”
The FCC announced last Friday that the agency is moving ahead with consideration of a proposed $39 billion merger of AT&T with T-Mobile.
Across the nation, identified rural supporters of the merger include The National Grange, Farm Broadcasters, National Black Farmers Association, Women Involved in Farm Economics, the Association of Range Consultants, American Agri-Women, Intertribal Agricultural Council, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Coalition for Public School Options.
The merger has drawn significant backing in Oklahoma’s rural areas. In the congressional delegation, announced supporters include U.S. Reps. Dan Boren of Muskogee and John Sullivan of Tulsa, as well as U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Muskogee.
Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission this summer received a letter of support from Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. Spradling said his group aims “to meet the needs of generations of famers, from lobbying for equitable legislation, to ensuring our members have access to the best services available.”
He predicted approval would “provide meaningful benefits to our community by bringing more and better wireless options to rural Oklahoma,” and said access to the Internet is “critical to the agriculture business and rural economies.” Online resources will, he contended, allow rural businesses “to research growing markets and new products.”
Also pressing for the merger from a rural Oklahoma perspective are economic development (ED) advocates and local chambers of commerce.
David Braddock of the Altus Southwest Area Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a Farm Bureau member, has also communicated with FCC commissioners. In his letter Braddock said the merger "will directly impact communities like ours through innovation, investment and job creation. It will give us greater leverage attracting new business because we will be able to offer access to the same modern Internet technology as areas much larger than we are."
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby are in a legal clash over water policy, but both have warmly endorsed the proposed merger.
While support seems overwhelming in Oklahoma, there is debate on the issue, including strong opposition from Sprint, one of AT&T’s competitors.
The Rural Cellular Association (RCA) has dubbed the proposed purchase by AT&T a “spectrum grab,” and asserts the combination would restrict competition, yield high prices and slow innovation. RCA’s members are small and mid-sized telecommunications companies.
Nationally, arguing strongly for the merger’s approval is former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, now serving as honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. He contends gains for broadband access in the legislation will tie rural areas “to the economic mainstream.
He describes such access to the Internet as “transformative ... , enabling virtually any business to be conducted from any location. With broadband, no longer is it necessary for a business to have physical urban proximity to its customers and suppliers.”
Boucher reflected, “I have a rural perspective. I devoted most of my congressional career to the pursuit of rural opportunity through the use of the latest information technologies in remote regions. Today, we are poised to take the next transformative step: bringing broadband to the hardest-to-serve communities, enabling them at last to achieve their long-held quality of life goals and bettering the entire nation, which will benefit through truly national connectivity.”
When in Congress, Boucher chaired the Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus.
IAA has provided a thumbnail of the ways broadband will help rural communities in the United States, featuring these ten points:
“1) Links local businesses to global markets , 2) Allows consumers to tap into e-commerce savings , 3) Expands access to educational opportunities, 4) Increases local job growth, 5) Connects patients to world class healthcare and reduces healthcare costs , 6) Enhances economic options for younger generations , 7) Provides new tools to farmers and ranchers to grow their businesses , 8) Enables entrepreneurs to locate their businesses locally, 9) Attracts customers to local businesses , 10) Offers families low cost options to stay in touch using the latest technology .”
Sourcing for IIA’s contentions of rural benefits can be viewed here.