FCC Chairman Tom WheelerAt 8AM on a brisk morning in downtown Boston, over 1,200 NTCA members gathered in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton to hear an important update from one of the most important figures in the communications space – FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Coffee cups and notepads in hand, members sat eagerly awaiting Chairman Wheeler’s analysis of the rural telecommunications landscape. What he shared was a mix of the expected and the surprising, with a heavy-handed dose of political diplomacy thrown in.

During a 30-minute address to NTCA, Chairman Wheeler expounded on the future of broadband, and emphasized the importance of sustainable universal access for America’s rural towns. He outlined 4 main elements of rate-of-return reform: 1) Ensure carriers have a voluntary option to receive support based upon a revised cost model.  2) For those not utilizing the model, replace HCLS AND ICLS with tools that provide incentives and support to continue investing in broadband networks. 3) Create a reasonable transition to the new mechanism as a “buffer”, and 4) Establish a budget that includes specific funding for capital and operating expenditures. If you think this sounds like a complicated and involved venture… you’d be right!

As you can imagine– and as with most things in politics– establishing a workable budget is the hardest part of the plan. However, and perhaps more importantly, rural access advocates  need to ensure any steps made toward “progress” do not compromise the success we’ve already had in bringing broadband to America’s rural communities. With many rural companies exploring gigabit internet possibilities, expanding their customer offerings, and looking into how to monetize the ever-growing Internet of Things, it’s more important than ever that we stay the course and continue to grow rural broadband regardless of Washington’s priorities. In short, it’s important that supporters of rural access stay actively involved in what’s going on in Washington when it comes to reforms—we want to keep things moving forward and not let politics slow down this fast-moving engine.