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Comments of

Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth

Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission


The Center for Rural Development

Somerset, Kentucky

May 11, 1998

Thank you, Hal Rogers, for those kind words of introduction. The people of Southeastern Kentucky are very fortunate to have you as their elected representative.

Not just because you are a very powerful Member of Congress and Chairman of an important subcommittee on the Appropriations Subcommittee.

But because you have been concerned about the issues facing Southeastern Kentucky. And nowhere is that more apparent than here at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Kentucky.

It is a center that you helped create. It is a center that still looks to you for leadership.

And you provide it.

This is something of a homecoming for me. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I lived there until my family moved to South Carolina when I was twelve. Knoxville is just a couple of hours down I-75. Except I-75 wasn't there when I was born.

East Tennessee is a lot like Eastern Kentucky. The only difference is that the first two words that young children in Eastern Kentucky learn are "Ma" and "Pa." The first two words that children in East Tennessee learn are "Go Vols!"

I was a grown man before I learned that a bright orange blazer is not necessarily appropriate business attire.

The Theme of this Center is: "You don't have to move away to find opportunity."

The theme is true.

Look to yourselves. You can do anything you want to do right here in Eastern Kentucky.

Don't look to outsiders for support. Look to yourself.

Some will say: "Southeastern Kentucky is an impoverished area." Some will say: "It's going nowhere." Some will say: "It's time to get out." Some will say: "It's time to give up."

I say: "They are wrong."

I know that life is not easy here in Eastern Kentucky. There is much unemployment, much poverty, and many people for whom hard times are a way of life. Life in Appalachia is never easy.

I learned something about poverty growing up in Knoxville.

When I was young, I thought all of the wealth and riches in the world were concentrated in Knoxville. It was the center of the universe. I thought Knoxville was rich because so much of surrounding area was so poor. I never thought of anyone in Knoxville or any city as poor -- rural areas seemed much poorer.

There probably are young children who have the same beliefs about Somerset, Kentucky.

When I was about 10 years old, Joe Garagiola was interviewing John Gunther on the Today show. Mr. Gunther was a renowned travel critic. Mr. Garagiola asked him what was the most beautiful city in the world, and Mr. Gunther said Paris. He went on and on about how beautiful Paris is.

And then Mr. Garagiola asked a question he would later regret. He asked for the ugliest city in the world. Mr. Gunther said Knoxville, Tennessee, of course. And he went on and on about how it is a dump.

The good citizens of Knoxville were upset, and several days later the Today show aired a travelogue about how beautiful Knoxville was.

The damage, however, was already done. Not so much to the image of the city. But to a little boy's sense of the city. It sticks in the craw of your throat when it seems much of the world thinks your "center of the universe" is nothing more than a dump.

And when you know that much of the surrounding rural areas are much poorer still.

At some point, you realize that it does not matter what other people think of you. You don't need the help and the flattery from the outside world to be great right here in Eastern Kentucky.

I know a fellow from East Tennessee. From a small town. He started out in business in high technology. It was a tough business with lots of very smart people.

Very smart people as business partners.

Sometimes this fellow would say something that was not exactly right, and his business partners would look puzzled, but this fellow would simply laugh it off and say: "I'm just from Tennessee."

His business partners accepted this comment as natural and probably thought people from Tennessee are naturally stupid.

Today, this fellow is the CEO of one of the fastest-growing high-tech corporations in America. He did not need the accolades of a lot of smart people from big cities to succeed. He only needed his own raw intelligence and a lot of hard work.

Right here in Kentucky there was a fellow from a very rural area. Very poor. He was not a city fellow. Never lived in a city until late in life. His ideas were shaped more by corn fields and river bends than by the angles of city streets. He tried many businesses and pursuits in life. He failed more often than he succeeded. But in the end, he worked hard, and he succeeded all right. He did not need the accolades of a lot of smart people from big cities to succeed. His name was Lincoln.

You can succeed right here in rural, eastern Kentucky. That is what this center is about. Opportunities abound. It takes hard work, not hand outs.

Our nation was founded in the midst of a great debate on the proper form of government. The debate was not between North and South, rich and poor. Rather it was between Federalists and anti federalists, those who favored a weak central government ----- and those who favored an even weaker one. While it may be too much of an oversimplification, it was rural interests that were the most fearful of an overly strong central government, and that were the most insistent on the rights of the individual above those of the government.

Part of the rural concerns were also that a central government would be dominated by urban interests and that communications, such as they were, would inevitably favor urban interests.

Our Nation was born with a Constitution that represents a compromise between these competing interests. Throughout our history, a fear has lingered that communications, and the evolution of communications technology, have somehow disadvantaged rural interests.

But technology has not remained constant, and new technologies do not necessarily disadvantage rural America. New satellite and internet services make remote areas as vibrant as central cities. But has regulation kept apace?

Two-and-one-half years ago, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It deregulates much of the telecommunications industry and allows for greater competition!

For decades, competition has been denied not by market forces but by government edict. For decades, customers have not paid the actual cost of service but a price set by regulators with a complex set of cross-subsidies.

There are those of us who thought -- and continue to believe -- that competition will help everyone, rich and poor, urban and rural. There are others, however, who worried, worried that competition would come primarily to urban America. Subsidies would evaporate. On both accounts, or so the fears-went, rural America would be left behind.

To guard against harm to rural America, Congress wrote Section 254 on Universal Service. Make no mistake. It was written for rural America. It established a federal universal service fund to replace and to expand preexisting federal programs to help defray the costs of providing phone service in high cost rural America.

The FCC has had the responsibility of implementing the universal service provisions. Surely, you say the FCC, after two-and-one-half years, has completed its work on universal service. No.

Surely, the FCC has completed its work on high-cost, rural support mechanisms. No.

Surely, to their extent the federal universal support, has expanded, it has primarily been for rural America.

No. To the contrary. Federal support has expanded by $2.6 billion annually and not a penny of the expansion has been for rural high cost America. Some would even say that rural support has shrunk.

And all Americans both rural and urban are paying for massive new universal service taxes.

Is that what Congress intended? No.

Is Congress happy? No.

Are American telephone consumers happy with new taxes. No.

Federal universal service has gone astray in Washington. Not with malice or bad intentions. No, indeed, the motives of the FCC have been good, but they simply have not yet succeeded in tackling the problems of rural America.

The promises of universal service made by Congress to rural America under Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act have not been fulfilled.

If rural America were entirely dependent on the FCC, you would be lost.

But in a larger sense, your success is not dependent on the FCC or Washington, D.C. beyond the simple enforcement of laws. And those laws allow you to have lower prices and higher quality service through your own efforts and through competition.

There are those in Washington who say that you cannot succeed on your own. That you need more regulation from Washington. And that Washington will tell you how to run your business, by our schools, your lives. They don't believe in rural America.

Success is never predicated on outside commands. Success comes when common people make dedicated efforts because there is reason to believe efforts are rewarded. Success comes when common people make investments because there is reason to believe that those investments will be rewarded. Success comes when common people make inspired innovations because there is reason to believe innovation is rewarded.

Success is never guaranteed; it is merely an opportunity. The likelihood that opportunity will lead to success depends in part on equality of opportunity for individuals and on the enforcement of property rights and contracts. America should cheer most loudly when the federal government stands for these principles rather when it stands for the principles of subsidies for special interests and broken laws and provisions.

America is at its best when there is reason to expect that effort is rewarded, investments are rewarded, and innovation is rewarded. Success is ultimately common people doing uncommon things because they have reason to believe that it is worthwhile.

Success is always the product of the individual. You stare that person in the eye each morning. Don't belittle the efforts of others by claiming responsibility for their success, and don't belittle your own efforts by conditioning your success entirely on the generosity of others. This is not to say that helping hands are not important or even at times necessary; but they are never sufficient.

Your success, and the success of rural America, and the success of all individuals throughout America, comes despite and not because of federal aid. Successful people succeed when they look to themselves for that little extra charge of inspiration, that little extra surge of effort.

Success at the FCC means following the law and following Congress. On rural issues, we have yet to succeed. But we will.

I will not rest easy at the FCC until the will of Congress is followed. Until the universal service truly serves rural America. Not because it is necessary to your prosperity, but because it is necessary to the rule of law.

I want to salute this Center. Not because it solves all problems. It helps solve some, but individuals must look to themselves for ultimate success. Rather, I salute this Center because it represents faith in the people of rural Kentucky. Faith that they can and will find opportunities here at home.

I believe in rural America. I believe it consists of hard-working people like you. People who believe that there is a reasonable likelihood of success from work, investment, and innovation. Common people doing uncommon things; common people looking to themselves first for help rather than the federal government. Common people who believe in equality of opportunity, who believe in property rights, and who believe in themselves. Common people whose roots dig down into the soil of rural America like that great Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln. You don't have to move away to find opportunity. You have it right here in Eastern Kentucky.