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What is Washington doing to help promote quality, affordable broadband in rural communities? The short answer is not enough. Whether in Congress or at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), policymakers are busy undermining policies that support rural Americans, or they are letting good ideas gather dust on the shelf.
Recent FCC Actions
Over at the FCC, there are at least three recent proceedings that will affect rural broadband deployment. The first is the transition from the legacy copper telephone networks to next generation infrastructure. Although this transition could have been an upgrade to broadband for everyone, the FCC has essentially allowed telephone companies to decide which communities get the best quality connections and which communities (read: small and rural communities) get lower quality connections.
The FCC’s recent vote also eliminated requirements that consumers be notified prior to the retirement of the legacy copper telephone networks in their areas, as well as requirements that, once the old systems are retired, the new systems work with existing devices, like credit card machines, fax machines, school fire alarms, and medical devices. This means that consumers may receive so-called “upgraded” infrastructure (accompanied by “upgraded” prices), but may not receive the same level of service or compatibility as they had before. This risk is particularly high in rural areas where deployment of reliable, high speed broadband is hard enough to begin with.
Second, the FCC is in the middle of a rule making that will determine whether rural communities continue to be left behind with regards to high-speed mobile broadband. During the Obama administration, the FCC said that it would license spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band in small geographic areas for three-year terms. This would have made it easier for the small providers that are more likely to serve rural areas to acquire spectrum, because the larger the geographic area, the higher the area’s price at auction – smaller providers are likely to be priced out of large geographic areas. The companies most likely to win those auctions are the same national companies that neglect to serve rural communities.
The Obama-era rules on license term length would also have benefited rural consumers, because a three-year license term gives a provider three years to set up service and, if that provider fails to do so, it provides a timely opportunity for another provider to win the spectrum and commence service. By contrast, under the old-world order 10-year licenses, large telecommunications carriers would win spectrum at auction and then fail to develop it and deliver service, waiting until they felt they could get a favorable return on investment; that time never came, because, due to rugged terrain and fewer possible customers, it is very expensive to deploy broadband in rural areas. Unfortunately, the FCC has agreed to re-open these rules and appears likely to license larger geographic areas for longer time periods.
The third proceeding nominally pending at the FCC has to do with TV white spaces, the empty spaces between television channels (and vacant television channels). There is a lot of white space spectrum in rural areas, and it has the perfect characteristics to send a lot of data over long distances, which makes it ideal for rural communities. To help broadband providers feel more comfortable leveraging TV white spaces, the FCC needs to issue a rule guaranteeing that TV white spaces can be used for broadband internet. The FCC proposed, and accepted public comment on, such a rule in 2014. But it has not yet finalized the rule.
Legislation Introduced in Congress
If the rural broadband proposals look bleak at the FCC, they are a little rosier in Congress – although about as likely to move as the 2014 TV white spaces rule. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) has introduced three bills that would make it easier to deploy broadband internet in remote areas. The first, affectionately called “Climb Once” and co-sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-West Virginia), would allow any utility crew to move the existing wires, often for TV or telephone, on a utility pole in order to make room for a new broadband provider. Currently, a new provider who wishes to hang cables has to wait for each utility company to send a separate crew to move its wires to make space for the new cables. As expected, this process can be drawn out.
Representatives Eshoo and McKinley’s second bill, nicknamed “Dig Once,” would require that, whenever there is federally funded construction of a road, conduit for fiber must be laid at the time of construction. Conduit is the piping through which fiber internet can be run. Laying it at the time of road construction would mean that broadband providers and communities would not need to tear up and repave roads when a new broadband project comes to an area.
Finally, Eshoo’s Community Broadband Act would make it easier for communities to build municipal broadband networks.
But the rural broadband legislative proposal most likely to move is in the Senate farm bill. It would increase the minimum speeds rural broadband providers must meet in order to receive U.S. Department of Agriculture loans and grants. This would ensure that when broadband is deployed in rural areas it is, in fact, high speed internet.
The other promising rural broadband legislative proposal is the Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to restore net neutrality. Net neutrality is a rural broadband issue, because the small providers who are most likely to serve rural areas have to “interconnect,” or connect to the global internet, through the large internet service providers (ISPs). Without net neutrality, the large ISPs may charge the small providers more to interconnect. These costs may be passed on to rural consumers – or they may make it cost-prohibitive for the small providers to offer service in remote areas. The CRA resolution has already passed the Senate, and the discharge petition to bring it to a vote in the House has bipartisan support.
We’ll keep fighting on Capitol Hill and at the FCC, but there’s no better way to change things than to speak out by contacting your elected officials. You can call your U.S. representative and urge him/her to sign the discharge petition to force a vote to save net neutrality. Public Knowledge is always working with allies in rural communities. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you live in such a community. Just a few voices from rural communities speak 10 times louder than 100 lobbyists from large telecom and broadband companies.
“Speak Your Piece” is regular feature of the Daily Yonder. It offers the opportunity for writers to express their views on topics important to rural America. Opinions expressed are those of the author, unless otherwise noted. Want to “Speak Your Piece”? Contact Daily Yonder Editor Tim Marema (tim [at] dailyyonder.com) for more information.