Telecom reps offer testimony at rural broadband hearing
ALBION — Congress came to Orleans County Thursday, as a field hearing called by Rep. Chris Collins drew testimony on rural broadband from national, regional and community-level telecommunications firms.
The House Small Business Subcommittee hearing held in the Orleans County Legislative Chambers lacked the scale of a full Congressional panel, but not in importance.
Representatives of Time Warner Cable, Frontier Communications and Rural Broadband Association offered testimony on FCC regulations, service expansion challenges and the industry’s future opportunities.
Each outlined their business models and offered suggestions for how the federal government could induce smarter investments into rural broadband networks.
Mark Meyerhofer, a government relations administrator for Time Warner Cable, said there has been a change in the national mindset that favors a greater focus on unserved areas.
Meyerhofer’s testimony voiced economic concerns will continue to hinder development in rural and sparsely populated areas.
“It remains extremely challenging to extend broadband to most rural areas of New York State, where geographic isolation and topographic issues make it economically infeasible for companies to reach these areas,” Meyerhofer said. “Investments simply cannot be recouped before it is time to reinvest.”
Frontier Communications General Manager Robert Smith discussed his firm’s ability to serve small areas like the hamlet of Wyoming by tying in existing copper lines to new fiber connections and remote facilities.
“There’s a misconception that wireless service comes magically through the sky, but wire-line capability exists to nearly every home,” Smith said. “To extend technology, it doesn’t have to be fiber lines.”
When Collins asked each representative about regulatory issues effect on service expansions and employment, Smith had a ready answer.
“We continue to be saddled with an outdated regulatory structure designed for phone service,” Smith said. “It hurts our ability to compete against cable providers, particularly in urban areas, so we can have the capital to expand in rural areas.
Jill Canfield, the assistant general counsel of the Rural Broadband Association, testified on behalf of the organization’s 900 independent members, who hope to have a more equitable chance when the FCC auctions off contracts for the 600 MHz spectrum.
“Our difficulty is that when the FCC auctions off large geographic areas, we don’t have the resources to compete with AT&T or Verizon for a whole state,” Canfield said.
Canfield said the FCC is considering auctioning off the nationwide network in 166 pieces, determined by metropolitan areas. The Rural Broadband Association favors splitting the areas into three times that amount, which she said would allow for investments into smaller areas.
“It’s an economical way to deliver broadband to the last mile,” Canfield said.
Collins expressed disappointment that the FCC could not send a witness to the hearing, but assured the audience that the input received Thursday would be directed to the regulatory agency and the House Small Business Committee.
While Collins’ district is among the most rural on the Small Business Committee, he said issues like broadband access provide a rare case of bipartisanship.
“We have unanimity on providing the tools small businesses need,” Collins said. “Our concern is how we can help them grow.”
More than anything, Collins said the hearing sends a message to unserved customers throughout his district.
“We know it’s an issue and we know it’s important,” Collins said.