The Information Dirt Road, by Club 20

Review by Ed Quillen

Rural communications – June 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Information Dirt Road
Special Report on the Impact of Telecommunication Deregulation in Rural Colorado
Published in 1997 by Club 20
Available free from Club 20, P.O. Box 550, Grand Junction CO 81502

The deregulation of American telecommunications means more than an annoying dinner-hour phone call from some pest who wants you to change long-distance carriers.

It also means that rural areas could find themselves cut off from an opportunity to escape the resource-based boom-and-bust cycles that have characterized the American West since the days of the fur trade (or maybe before — there must be a reason that the Anasazi abandoned their cities).

And so, it’s refreshing to see Club 20 examine the issue and produce some recommendations.

Club 20, based in Grand Junction, began in 1953 as an association of Western Slope counties to lobby for better highways.

Until fairly recently, Club 20 never saw a problem that couldn’t be fixed by pavement or higher uranium prices.

Fortunately, its interests have broadened in recent years, as has its membership — Lake and Jackson counties, both on the Eastern Slope, now belong. Club 20 is evolving into an effective voice for all of rural Colorado — an increasingly diverse rural Colorado that comprises environmentalists, outfitters, telecommuters, amenity migrants, niche agriculture, and scores of other occupations unknown during the uranium days.

This 36-page report offers a summary, details, and recommendations, and it’s generally quite clear, which is a blessing if you’re trying to make sense of the stuff you read about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Universal Service Fund.

Club 20 argues that out in our boondocks, competition has not emerged and service is no better, despite the promises that came with deregulation in the early 1990s.

“Rural areas are more threatened today, not because the deregulation itself was bad policy, but because the specific regulations needed to implement the legislation have so badly missed the mark, leaving the needs of rural America sidelined while huge corporations vie for position in the metropolitan profit centers.”

The way around that is to maintain a Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes high-cost areas, and once that is established, then open up the market. The Federal Communications Commission opened the market first, so that by the time the Fund is operating, there may be no money for rural areas. Wireless technologies, which do not place rural areas at a disadvantage, should also be encouraged by public policy.

However, “Regulators have largely ignored these simple goals … and have begun a deregulation process which may lead not to stability, but to another bust in the rural West. The result could be denial of the benefits of progress to millions of citizens, and creation of a stratified society of haves and have-nots. Again.”

Club 20 makes specific recommendations to avoid this fate. Among the best is forbidding the state government to build its own communications system. If the state, a major customer, has to buy from a private provider (who also serves many other customers), then we can all have access to decent service, and entrepreneurs will be encouraged to invest, knowing they have access to the state government as a big customer.

If you’re at all concerned about telecommunications in this part of the world, you’ll find this report informative and useful. As the report concludes, “While the rest of the world talks about the information superhighway, we in rural Colorado have the information dirt road, filled with potholes and no pavement in sight.”

— Ed Quillen