Rural Broadband Still Challenging, but Progress Possible

Carl Weinschenk

President Trump, in a visit to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pledged that rural broadband would be an element of the $1 trillion infrastructure proposal said to be coming.

The president is known for speaking off the cuff, so what is eventually proposed and, of course, what gets through Congress, is impossible to predict.

In any case, rural broadband continues to be a hot issue. Any discrepancy between speeds available in urban and suburban areas on one hand and rural areas on the other raises concerns. Those concerns are growing.

The NTCA-Rural Broadband Association claims that the Universal Service Fund (USF), which is a vehicle meant to support rural broadband, is shrinking. The piece says that average reductions during the past nine months have risen from 4.5 percent to 9.1 percent and finally to 12.3 percent. That adds up to a total reduction of $173 million of the originally budgeted $1.4 billion during the year starting on July 1, the press release says.


That could change. It’s counterintuitive to think of the Democrats and Republicans cooperating, but rural broadband may be one area where it actually could happen. Morning Consult reports on Senate bill S.1013, which was introduced early last month by Senator Shelly Capito (R-WV).

It would use tax benefits to encourage investment in gigabit opportunity zones, which primarily would be in rural and low-income areas. The bill defers capital gains for upgrades, allows companies creating the zones to expense their costs, and eases the issuance of tax-exempt bonds for investments in rural broadband. Many of these ideas are in sync with proposals by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s.

A parallel legislative/regulatory issue that will affect rural broadband is the drive to simplify and speed the way in which providers gain access to municipal infrastructure such as poles, ducts and conduits to provide services. FierceTelecom focuses on responses filed last week on the cable side to a Notice of Proposed Rule Making from the FCC on simplifying the process.

The responses say that utilities have little motivation to cooperate in a timely manner or to do so for reasonable compensation. The story doesn’t include the utility response, so it is not conclusive. However, it points to the reality that operating in rural areas – where customer density is lower and margins are tighter – is difficult.

Improving rural broadband is an element of the overall effort to confront the digital divide. It is an issue that has existed since the dawn of the broadband era and it will continue. Hopefully, a bipartisan spirit can lead to progress.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

 


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