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NetUSA to extend broadband reach

| March 7, 2006 11:00 PM

U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont) held a second hearing last week on the Universal Service Fund and his NetUSA bill last week.

His first hearing was on the question of who should contribute to the fund that provides affordable telecommunications to rural America. The second hearing investigated how the monies in that fund should be distributed to have the greatest impact.

"The Universal Service Fund keeps phone bills in Montana low, by more than $300 per year less than they otherwise would be," Burns said.

In recent times, the amount of money paid out by the fund has increased, making it difficult for the fund to keep up with demand. Burns' NetUSA bill broadens the base of contributors, shoring up the USF, while governing more prudently the distribution of the funds, he said.

"My NetUSA bill will keep those savings in place," Burns said. "It will also increase the availability and quality of cellular phone service and high-speed, broadband internet access to underserved, rural areas of Montana and the whole country. These new communication devices will let more Montanans engage in the economy of the 21st century, improving their lives.

The NetUSA bill will increase broadband internet access to schools and libraries, as well as private homes. This will not only increase Montanan's access to news, information, and educational materials, it will aid in the spread and use of telemedicine. Telemedicine is essential to rural areas like Montana due to the high number of counties without practicing physicians.

"The issue of telemedicine is one that is near and dear to me," Burns said. "I've been the leading force on this issue in the Senate since I first set foot in Washington 18 years ago. My bill will increase access to medical help and advice for all Montanans living in rural areas."

The Coalition to Keep America Connected is applauding Burns' leadership in addressing the need to ensure the future of the universal service fund.

"How these funds are distributed is crucial to ensuring that all Americans, regardless of where they live, have access to affordable telecommunications services," said Shirley Bloomfield, vice president of Government Affairs and Association Services with National Telecommunications Cooperative Association. "Senator Burns' NetUSA bill would help accomplish this goal for rural Americans."

The USF is considered invaluable access to telehealth, important to rural states like Montana, where the population is spread out over a large area and significant portions of the state are not served by health care professionals. Telehealth lets patients seek health advice, diagnoses, and treatment options from their home without having to travel long distances or otherwise go without important services common to people living in urban and suburban areas.

Support from the telecommunications industry has been strong.

"Universal service ensures that consumers and businesses in Montana as well as New York have equal access to modern communications capabilities, such as health care, education and entertainment applications," said Bill Squires, senior vice president and general counsel of Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative in Missoula.

In addition to his USF bill, Burns recently sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin requesting the 700 MHz band for wireless communications be divided into smaller geographic service areas allowing for more, smaller wireless communication companies to compete for business and offer services to areas that would otherwise be underserved due to the expense of covering large areas.

The concept and letter was applauded by the Rural Telecommunications Group.

"RTG is pleased that Senator Burns is championing the cause of smaller licensing areas for small and rural wireless carriers," said Jessica Bridges, CEO of RTG, "ensure that those carriers most ready and capable of providing service in rural areas utilizing the spectrum are positioned to do so."

Burns said telecommunications has grown beyond simply being a way to talk with friends and family to being an important tool for health care, education and employment.

"Cellular phones and the Internet have fundamentally changed the lives of all Americans who have access to them for the better, and I am working hard to make sure that every American has access to them," Burns said. "I want every Montanan, every American to be able to participate in and benefit from the economy of the future."