FCC examines rural broadband obstacles | TSLN.com

FCC examines rural broadband obstacles

OMAHA (DTN) – As federal agencies look to divvy up more than $7 billion to increase high-speed Internet access, the Federal Communication Commission is calling for more cooperation between federal, state and local agencies dealing with expanding broadband service to rural areas.

In a report released Wednesday, the FCC recommended government agencies hold joint hearings, create a common terminology, improve data collection and coordinate agendas to better expand broadband Internet service across the country.

The 2008 farm bill required Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps to submit a report with recommendations to improve federal and state coordination of broadband efforts. The FCC also must assess the need for broadband services in rural areas and use various federal programs to overcome obstacles to rural broadband development.

“In some respects, events overtook this effort as Congress provided new direction and support for federal broadband policies and initiatives, guidance which frankly has reshaped our approach to the development of this report,” the report stated.

Currently, the federal government lacks reliable and comprehensive data on broadband availability and subscribers in rural areas, average speed or price. The FCC report urges more data collection and suggests that mapping broadband access is an important tool that can be developed with more conclusive data.

The FCC report said that broadband “is the interstate highway of the 21st century for small towns and rural communities, the vital connection to the broader nation and, increasingly, the global economy.”

A Pew Internet & American Life project released a report last July stating that only 38 percent of rural residents had broadband at home, compared to 57 percent of people living in urban areas and 60 percent of people living in suburban areas. USDA issued a report in February stating that broadband access is vital to the economic well-being of rural communities. USDA stated as much as $3.6 billion in farm products were sold using the Internet. Further, rural residents use broadband access to buy goods and services not available to them locally.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package, mandates that the FCC create a comprehensive national broadband plan by next February. The legislation also provides a total of $7.2 billion to create loan, loan guarantee and grant programs to improve broadband access. Of that amount, $2.5 billion is designated for rural development and will be managed by the USDA’s Department of Rural Development. The National Telecommunications Information Administration manages the remaining $4.7 billion.

The FCC’s report noted federal agencies are already beginning to coordinate efforts because of an interagency group created by President Barack Obama. The report also praised and recommends the use of the joint public hearings like the ones held by the NTIA and USDA in March.

Those meetings included roundtables to discuss definitions of the role of the states, broadband mapping, selections criteria and community economic development. USDA is currently drafting the regulations and plans to open up an application process for the stimulus funds in mid to late June, USDA spokesman Jay Fletcher said.

Many of the issues discussed at those meeting showed up in the FCC report as well. Establishing common definitions for words like “rural” and “underserved” and coordinating program criteria was one recommendation. Streamlining and improving existing programs was another. It also recommends expanding the FCC and USDA “Broadband Opportunities for Rural Areas” Web site to include a comprehensive list of programs.

The FCC report also assessed the short- and long-term needs for rural broadband services. Because different methods of broadband access (wireless versus wireline versus satellite) may work better in different areas, the report urges a “technology-neutral” stance, encouraging decision makers should choose the best service for the area.

The stimulus package allocates $350 million of the broadband stimulus funds to create an online, interactive broadband map. According to a quarterly status report from the NTIA, who is responsible for creating the map, it should be online by February 2011.

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