FCC: Rural Broadband Still Needs Gov’t Push

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The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that rural
broadband deployment still needs some help from the government, including “major
Universal Service Fund reform,” as well as the removal of such barriers as speed
and price.

While the FCC said progress has been made, including lower pole-attachment rates
and smoother rights of way for cable operators — as well as the introduction of such
inexpensive offerings as Comcast’s low-cost, high-speed “Internet Essentials” program
— more needs to be done.

That message came in a congressionally mandated update to the requirement in the
2008 Farm Bill that the FCC and the Department of Agriculture revisit a 2009 report
outlining their rural broadband strategy.

The report concludes that while “a number of private- and public-sector initiatives
are underway,” and significant progress has been made, “additional efforts and new
policies — including major universal service policy reform — are still required to ensure
that rural America fully shares in the benefits of the emerging broadband economy.”
The report did not include mobile broadband.

The agency’s conclusion is not a big surprise.

The FCC has already said that, in general, broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable
and timely manner. It drew a similar conclusion last month for the second time
in its annual 706 report on broadband deployment, noting that the 26 million people
without broadband were primarily in rural communities.

Cable operators are concerned that the FCC could use those fi ndings to justify price
regulation or speed mandates.

The commission said in the rural report that progress had been made, and included not
only Comcast’s Essentials program — one of the conditions for approval of its NBCUniversal
merger deal — but also its December 2010 vote to impose network-neutrality conditions,
saying those rules will “will provide greater clarity and certainty regarding the
continued freedom and openness of the Internet, and support the marketplace’s cycle of
investment and innovation, driving increased investment in broadband infrastructure.”

The commission also cited its moves to require data roaming, as well as toward
broadband-stimulus programs administered by the Agriculture and Commerce departments.

But the point the FCC hammered home was that “bringing broadband to rural and
insular areas of the country is a task of significant cost and complexity that will require
continuation of each of these efforts as well as new initiatives to address any additional
obstacles that come to light.”

The FCC said it would try to look first at market-driven initiatives to spur deployment
and adoption “where appropriate,” but it would also need to continue to remove barriers
to both, which it said in the 706 report include price and speed.

It also said mobile broadband, which was not included in the report due to a lack
of granular data, would be another way of bridging what it says are still “significant”
deployment and adoption gaps.”

The FCC also put in another plug for freeing up spectrum from broadcasters and others,
saying such a move should increase access to wireless broadband in rural areas.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association was still reviewing the report
at press time, but AT&T was quick to latch onto the report as further evidence that
its merger with wireless rival T-Mobile would be in the public interest.

“Our proposed merger with T-Mobile USA is a bold step toward achieving greater
rural broadband deployment, extending 4G LTE wireless broadband to encompass an
additional 55 million Americans beyond our current plans — many in rural areas or
small towns,” AT&T said.

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