Since 1934 Congress has recognized that all Americans, including those living in high cost rural areas, are entitled to receive equitable and affordable telecommunications services comparable to those available in urban and suburban parts of our country. These public policy principles were important then, just as they are today, for our national security, public safety, education and economic development. Congress reiterated its support of these principles and embodied them in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

As the manager of a locally owned telephone cooperative providing services to rural northeast Missouri, I realize how vitally important the continuation of the Universal Service Fund is not only for our rural areas and local communities, but our nation. Imagine the economic and social impacts for our nation if an interconnected network, that serves all, is not maintained. How would cell phones work (they interconnect using the public switched network), how would buyers of goods connect to suppliers and shippers, families contact each other, the Internet work, etc? All of these services are dependent upon a nationwide voice and data network that connects urban, suburban and rural areas together.

Our local school districts are struggling to survive due to declining enrollments, less state and federal aid and more requirements being placed upon them to keep their accreditations. The Schools and Libraries program contained within the USF has provided our schools the necessary funding to be re-wired and secure high speed broadband Internet connections for the use of their students. Five of our local school districts are using these funds to operate an interactive Distance Learning Network which interconnects the schools with broadband facilities to allow them to share teaching resources so that students at one location can have access to classes offered by a teacher located at another school district perhaps 75 miles away. Our rural students deserve the same educational opportunities as those offered in urban areas and the USF is helping to ensure that they are not left behind.

Rural areas are struggling financially with an aging population and incomes well below the state and national averages. The Low Income Program contained within the USF is ensuring that our qualified low income subscribers can still maintain access to essential services such as fire and police protection as well as access to emergency medical services.

The Rural Health Care Program contained within the USF is being used to help our rural health clinics remain open and viable. These funds are used to provide telecommunications and broadband services so these doctors and nurses in the rural clinics can communicate and share information such as X-rays and diagnostic testing results with specialists and hospitals located in the urban areas many miles away. Rural Americans need access to adequate health care and the USF is helping to provide it.

Another program within the USF is the High Cost Program. This program ensures that all consumers, including those living in rural and remote areas, such as the area we serve in northeast Missouri, have access to telecommunications services at affordable rates. Rural areas such as ours are sparsely populated with family farms and small towns. Very good row crop agricultural ground and pastures are surrounded by steep terrain and rocky slopes and valleys. The cost of burying fiber and copper telecommunications facilities in our area is significantly higher, on a per subscriber basis, than in the urban or suburban areas. The USF ensures that our subscribers can continue to have access to modern and affordable telecommunications service.

According to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the fund, without USF support in Missouri, rural consumers' bills would experience an average annual increase of $142.99. For our particular company, the increases would be over $50 per month and many would be forced to leave the network.

Should rural America have access to the Internet to educate their children, purchase and sell goods and services? Should all Americans have access to police and fire protection and emergency medical services? Should all users of the network, including cellular phone companies and those providing Voice Over the Internet Protocol (VOIP) services, pay to use the network and pay into the USF? I say yes to all!

To view the impact of USF across the nation and to see how vital USF is to rural America, visit http://www.keepamericaconnected.org.

Bill Rohde is general manager of the Mark Twain Rural Telephone Cooperative, Hurdland, Mo.