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There’s a bit of good news from Washington this week.  You probably haven’t heard about it though.  

In the absence of controversy, even significant actions can slip by without much public notice.  Let me share the good news. I am pleased to report that thanks to a $300 million fund set up by the Federal Communications Commission, a lot more Americans in rural communities are a step closer to broadband service on mobile phones.

While Americans in cities and suburbs have been snapping up high-powered smartphones at a breathtaking pace and using them for a widening array of mobile and online activity, people who live in many small rural communities are lucky to get a good enough connection for a phone call. 

For a variety of economic reasons, high-end service simply isn’t reaching many remote and lightly populated communities. So, the FCC has set up a Universal Service Mobility Fund to help start filling those gaps – and this week it announced an aggressive schedule for making it all happen.

The FCC is going to run so-called “reverse auctions,” in which the low-bidder in designated communities will receive government funds for setting up service. By defraying some of the extra expense of serving remote communities, the government aims to draw experienced private sector wireless companies to begin offering reliable, high-speed wireless services.  

The bidding period opens next month. To make sure the service arrives quickly, winning bidders will have to get service up and running fast – within two years for installing 3G service and three years for the more advanced 4G services that wireless companies have recently started offering in most urban areas.

This is exactly what government should do when the market isn’t meeting consumers’ needs.  If it works as planned, it will help bring us closer to President Obama’s goal of advanced wireless service to 98 percent of Americans.

Make no mistake, however.  Good as it is, the new mobility fund is a gap-filler only for some of the pockets that the marketplace is missing. 

The bulk of the responsibility and expense for meeting national goals will continue to rest with private sector providers – who will need to invest hundreds of BILLIONS (not the millions in the new fund) to make sure that the underserved in rural America can get and stay connected. 

This year alone, wireless companies will invest about $26 billion in these networks, far more than the government can or should spend at a time when private companies are vigorously competing for customers in all but the handful of communities targeted by the FCC’s auction program.  

Let’s hope Washington can keep its end of the bargain by making sure that the new fund works as promised and implementing smart policies that support private investment. The Universal Service Fund alone can’t reach every high-cost rural area across the country. 

Every American should have the ability to use a smart phone or tablet and rely on a high-speed connection regardless of where they live. In this day and age, the “City Limit” sign should not “Limit” connectivity.

Nicole Palya Wood is Legislative Director of The National Grange. 

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