FCC, Obama Administration push for better rural broadband access

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is revamping how rural Americans will gain access to broadband. On February 8, the commission set up an official rulemaking proceeding to overhaul the Universal Service Fund to try and make rural broadband more affordable. According to an announcement on Tuesday, the FCC identified 39 states that have areas without basic access to broadband, in real terms this means that up to 24 million Americans lack access or can only get online through dial-up service. The announcement comes as part of the commission’s sixth annual report to Congress on the state of broadband deployment in the United States.

According to the FCC broadband deployment faces significant hurdles, despite new federal programs like BTOP. The prospects for getting rural Americans online with broadband in the short run are generally bleak and don’t look to improve significantly over the next few years. As a result the commission is proposing several reforms including an overhaul of the Universal Service Fund, more innovative approaches to spectrum allocation, investments in infrastructure and better broadband data collection. Some of these reforms are already underway – there has been a significant increase in broadband data collection efforts.

The Universal Service Fund (USF) is an $8 billion dollar fund that currently subsidizes rural telephone service and will now be employed to increase broadband access for rural customers. The commission is considering reforms such as phasing out payments between phone companies and consolidating payments for rural phone service into a new pool to be called the Connect America Fund. Money from this fund will then go into supporting rural broadband. These measures will further be supported by a new nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety which the Obama Administration unveiled today. CivSource reported on a panel last year that covered these issues, which have long been up for debate among telecom/broadband industry insiders and observers. Public safety interoperability network funding is also increasing and is expected to reach $38.7 billion by 2015 apart from the administration’s initiative.

The report also updated what the commission considers to be the minimum standard for broadband service — 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. This is a change from the previous 200 Kbps standard.

Following Tuesday’s report, the FCC invited several members of the telecom industry to discuss accelerating broadband deployment. The executives called on state and local governments to create more uniform fee structures for broadband providers and consider looking at ways to share assets like adding femtocell stations to government offices or asking radio stations to share their AM radio towers.

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