A trencher cuts a ditch for fiber lines between Ardmore and Madill, Oklahoma.

With little hope of creating new spending initiatives for broadband that require congressional approval, the White House has released a report on steps the administration could take on its own to improve programs that support broadband access for poor and geographically remote communities.

The Broadband Opportunity Council released a set of recommendations earlier this week calling for federal agencies to adjust their funding guidelines to allow grantees more flexibility in using money to pay for broadband infrastructure and other digital technology.

The recommendations would make adjustments in programs such as the Ag. Department’s Rural Utilities Service and the Department of Commerce’s New Market Tax Credits.

Some of the changes are minor – for example, changing language on a “frequently asked questions” page to make it clear that tax credits could be used for broadband projects.

In other cases, the recommendations call for agencies to create new rules – a more formal regulatory process – to allow grants or loans to be used for broadband. For example, one recommendation calls for the USDA Community Facilities program – which supports a variety of bricks-and-mortar projects for healthcare, safety, and community centers – to allow grantees to spend funds on broadband projects. In another recommendation, Housing and Urban Development  would allow more flexibility for developers to include broadband connectivity in new publicly supported housing projects.

The report estimates that such changes in existing funding programs could open up $10 billion in federal grants and loans for “broadband-related activities.” Net government spending would not be affected, meaning that in some cases grantees would have to make the same amount of money go further if they were going to include broadband projects.

Another recommendation in the report calls for federal agencies to provide technical assistance to communities on broadband build-out and use. And it also says agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and telecommunications companies should work together to create a “connectivity index” to help assess how well communities were doing with broadband.

Rural broadband advocates praised the Broadband Opportunity Council’s recommendations, though some expressed disappointment that the administration couldn’t do more to support broadband in rural areas.

“These actions and reforms are heading in the right direction,” said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “But we need to go in that direction much faster.”

The recommendations show that the president “is more serious about expanding broadband in rural areas than Congress,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, the kind and amount of funding that needs to be available – ideally in the form of loans for co-ops and municipal networks – need to come from Congress.”

the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Christopher Mitchell.
Christopher Mitchell is director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Striking a theme that has become familiar in discussions of community development and technology, the Broadband Opportunity Council emphasized that broadband is a necessity, like water or electricity, and has become a fundamental part of education, healthcare, business, public safety, and civic participation.

“The Broadband Opportunity Council’s report does a fine job of documenting America’s compelling need for broadband access,” said Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation, which supports work in rural Minnesota and publishes the “Blandin on Broadband” blog. “We are especially heartened by the administration’s call for the rest of us to join in the effort of ‘helping communities become “broadband ready” ’.”

The report cited research showing that household income and geography are two of the biggest factors in determining who has broadband at home. Poorer neighborhoods are less likely to have broadband, and nearly a third of people in homes without broadband said expense was a major reason, according to the U.S. Census. Rural areas also had less access, the report said:

Some parts of the country, mostly rural and Tribal lands, are connectivity deserts – regions with little or no access to broadband – or “parched” with broadband coverage inadequate to meet community needs. For example, broadband speeds of at least 25 Mbps (download) and at least 3 Mbps (upload) are available to only 47 percent of rural households and 37 percent of people living on Tribal Lands, compared with 92 percent of urban households.

Communications scholar Sharon Strover, a University of Texas at Austin professor, said the report could have placed more emphasis on making broadband affordable.

“What a lot of our research suggests is that two factors figure in explaining why people don’t use broadband connections: affordability and lack of interest,” Strover said. “I don’t really see much in the report that grapples with affordability.”

Bernadine Joselyn directs Blandin Foundation’s Public Policy and Engagement program area
Bernadine Joselyn directs Blandin Foundation’s Public Policy and Engagement program area

She said the report’s emphasis on getting federal and state governments to work together on rolling out broadband was important. “This definitely is needed, but the mechanism by which this would actually occur is pretty opaque,” she said.

Frank Odasz, a community broadband consultant who lives in Montana, said rural communities need to learn from each other how to build out and use broadband well. He applauded the report’s call for communities to learn “best practices from their peers around the country.” But he questioned whether centralized resources like a one-stop portal on best practices would be useful for rural communities.

More than 200 individuals and organizations submitted comments for the Broadband Opportunity Council to consider as part of their research for the report.

One of those groups, the Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly, argued unsuccessfully in favor of allowing small, independent Internet service providers to receive federal funding through programs like the Connect America Fund. “Even when large carriers could receive millions of dollars in subsidies to deploy broadband, they do not find it worthwhile to reach low-income and remote communities,” the group’s comments stated. Smaller, local organizations would be more likely to serve areas with low density and hard-to-reach consumers, the comments said.

The Broadband Opportunity Council, established by President Obama in March, is co-chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Ag. Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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