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WASHINGTON  U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today led a hearing titled “Broadband: Opportunities and Challenges in Rural America.” The hearing allowed the committee to assess the progress of broadband deployment in rural America and continued to explore ways in which closing the digital divide will benefit American jobs and the economy. The hearing featured testimony from South Dakotans Denny Law and Mona Thompson.

Thune’s remarks (as prepared for delivery):

“Good morning and welcome to today’s hearing on a topic that continues to be critically important to this committee: access for all to broadband services.

“As Chairman, I want to share some principles that I believe should guide the Committee with regard to building out rural broadband.

“First, rural Americans, and the smaller businesses serving them, must never be an afterthought when making public policy decisions.

“Second, universal service cannot be achieved without pragmatic and bipartisan cooperation in Congress and without proper oversight of the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies tasked with advancing this goal like the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Third, the certainty and sufficiency of funding for broadband in rural America – for carriers and end users – must be ensured. 

“Providing quality communications services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates is a Congressionally-mandated telecommunications mission that has been in place for over 80 years.

“In fulfilling this mission, one of the most critical programs overseen by the FCC is the Universal Service Fund’s High Cost program.

“It has been more than a year since Chairman Pai, Commissioner Carr, and Commissioner Rosenworcel sat before this committee and committed to conducting a thorough economic analysis of the impact of USF funding cuts on broadband deployment in rural areas before allowing any further reduction in the percentage of cost recovery for high cost areas. 

“Since that time, however, the cuts resulting from the FCC’s budget control mechanism have increased by almost 25 percent. 25 percent! 

“There has been no economic analysis of what these cuts are doing to rural America — what they are doing to rural jobs, rural economic development, and the ability to live and learn, work, and play in communities like Pierre, South Dakota or Ocean Pointe, Hawaii; Yankton, South Dakota or Yakima, Washington.

“The FCC has not conducted an analysis of what insufficient and unpredictable funding is doing to the companies trying to deploy broadband under some of the most difficult circumstances in America. 

“This is simply unacceptable. 

“The FCC’s failure to ensure sufficient and predictable funding jeopardizes the vitality of America’s rural communities, and makes it much, much harder for our witnesses and others like them to deploy broadband.

“The impact of the FCC’s failure is even greater in America’s Tribal lands. 

“The challenge of deploying broadband in these areas is often greater than in rural America more generally, and so the impact of uncertain and insufficient funding is even more severe for Tribal communities in desperate need of the communications infrastructure that brings more jobs and improved education resources.

“Just yesterday, I, along with the rest of the South Dakota delegation, sent a letter to Chairman Pai where we laid out a strong case for immediate FCC action to restore sufficiency and predictability to the High Cost program. 

“In my home state of South Dakota, support for rural carriers will be cut by more than $11 million over a twelve-month period if the FCC does not act by the end of the year.

“That is just the impact in South Dakota. 

“These cuts could cause providers to halt or cancel broadband buildout, reducing the availability of broadband throughout rural America.  

“This could also cause an increase to the cost of service to those who already receive service, putting at risk investments already made.  

“Such inaction by the FCC would be contrary to its mission.

“Another issue the Committee has frequently examined is broadband mapping and how our current maps are insufficient.  

“Without accurate maps, we cannot build out broadband to truly unserved areas.

“On a more positive note, I am heartened to see FCC Chairman Pai planning for an auction for the Remote Areas Fund to provide service to extremely high-cost areas, including both rate-of-return and price cap areas. 

“I am interested in seeing a tech-neutral approach for future support from programs like the Remote Areas Fund, ensuring wireline service, fixed and mobile wireless service, and satellite service all have a part to play in connecting Americans to next generation broadband service.

“As I said at the beginning of my statement, rural Americans should never be left behind their urban counterparts. 

“That is why I am happy to have a panel of individuals who are uniquely qualified to speak to the real-life challenges of running broadband in rural America.

“I want to welcome our panel to Washington.  

“I now recognize the Ranking Member for any remarks he may have.”