Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony’s criticism of the state’s mandatory Universal Service Fund is symptomatic of the classism that often splits urban and rural lines at the state capital.
The 31-year incumbent who was elected to his sixth term in 2018 questioned why lawmakers still require Oklahomans to pay a fee that subsidizes rural telephone and internet access. Anthony sent a letter to lawmakers after the fee assessed for the state’s Universal Service Fund shot up in July, alleging the surcharge largely benefits “a couple dozen privileged independent telephone companies who had good ol’ boy buddies in the Legislature in 1997.”
The commissioner’s letter undoubtedly was prompted in part by complaints from constituents. As a regulator of the state’s utilities Anthony had a hand in raising that fee. The high increaseafter July 1 was due in part to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which maintains the commission must honor the backlog of financial obligations that remain unpaid.
The fees that go into this fund are used to pay for high-speed internet that is used for telemedicine, schools and libraries across the state. But the portion that goes toward building out broadband infrastructure in rural Oklahoma is critical to economic development in those areas.
Studies show rural counties where there is access to high-speed broadband networks and residents adopt that technology “have the highest levels of income and education, have more firms and relatively low unemployment and poverty rates.” The “non-metro counties” where access and adoption rates are lower, residents “are doing the worst on those same measures.”
From here, it looks as if Anthony is looking for a scapegoat after catching some flak for having to raise a fee that subsidizes the development of rural Oklahoma’s broadband infrastructure. He wants to blame companies trying to provide rural Oklahoma with a level of service comparable to what Anthony enjoys in the greater Oklahoma City area.
It would serve the commissioner well to remember that a rural Oklahoma that has a healthy economy benefits the state by improving economic stability. And corporation commissioners are elected by voters from across the entire state.