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Rural Broadband, the FCC and Congress

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Serving the needs of citizens living in areas in which providing services is a financial loser always has been a huge challenge for telecommunications companies and for officials at the local, state and federal levels.

It’s no different in the broadband age. For the local community, the situation is analogous to the early days of the railroads: Communities where trains stopped had an invaluable link with the outside world and an almost insurmountable developmental advantage over those where they didn’t.

Currently, people are particularly concerned with a couple of issues.

The first is a move by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has named 40 winners in a competition it held aimed at finding organizations best able to extend rural broadband. Telecompetitor said that the winners include 14 wireless ISPs, two cable companies, four power companies and seven telcos. The FCC posted the full list of winners.

The story says that each of the winners was awarded as much as $4.45 million, with total awards almost reaching $100 million. There were winners in 25 states and Puerto Rico. The high-level goal is to better target future initiatives:

The goal of the rural broadband experiments is to gather information to help in shaping the competitive bidding process for the Connect America Fund broadband program. Competitive bidding will be used to determine who receives support – and the support level — in the event that one of the nation’s largest price cap carriers declines to deploy broadband in its local service territory at the amount of support funding offered by the FCC based on a cost model.

The second issue concerns the debate on the latitude that incumbent carriers have to serve or not serve areas. The telephone industry has pushed through legislation to restrict the rights of municipalities to provide services, either by building networks themselves or empowering other providers. In some cases, the incumbents are underserving or even not serving sparsely populated areas but still seek to keep competitors from gaining a toehold.

The New York Times posted a story with a vignette about restrictive broadband rules in force in eastern North Carolina. Chattanooga and the small city of Wilson have petitioned the FCC to invalidate the state laws. In the case of Wilson, the law prohibited Greenlight, the municipal service, from providing broadband in neighboring communities. The result was that a farmer whose barn and home office straddle the county line couldn’t link them via Wi-Fi or fiber optic connectivity.

That’s an extreme example of what the stakes are. Here is how The Times describes it:

In North Carolina, as in 18 other states, state laws limit municipalities from building or expanding high-speed Internet service networks. The reason behind those laws, supporters say, is to limit taxpayer exposure to projects that at times fail and for which there may be little demand.

The topic of rural broadband is an important one, and one to which states are paying attention. For instance, this week CivSource described an initiative by Sue Ellspermann, Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor, to determine broadband needs in rural parts of the state. She has created the Rural Broadband Working Group. Its goal is to make recommendations and offer a plan to expand availability in these areas.

Rural broadband is but one of many issues on the table between the FCC and Congress. And those issues are part of the even broader back and forth between Congress and the administration. Thus, quick and sensible compromises are by no means guaranteed.

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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