Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps released a report on broadband strategy for rural America on Wednesday.
The report was mandated as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. In that bill Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to submit "a report describing a comprehensive rural broadband strategy."
The emphasis on forming a rural broadband strategy came several months before President Obama took office. Obama also sees broadband as a priority and included funding for broadband development as part of the stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year.
In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Congress appropriated $7.2 billion for broadband grants, loans, and loan guarantees to be administered by the USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). As part of this bill, the FCC is also required to file a report with Congress in February 2010 describing a national broadband policy.
Copps called this report on rural broadband strategy a starting point for developing a national broadband policy. And even with the $7.2 billion of money from the stimulus package, Copps said that more money will be needed to ensure that every American has access to broadband.
Copps identified several issues in this report that must be overcome to get broadband deployed in rural areas. These issues include technological challenges, lack of data about where broadband is available and who is accessing it, and high network costs. Despite these challenges, Copps said that the U.S. government must pour resources into solving these problems just as it did when building the U.S. Postal Service, the railroads, the nationwide electrical grid, the interstate highway system, and even the Internet backbone.
"From the country's earliest days, building the nation's infrastructure has required federal resources and leadership, and this federal role continues," he said in the report. "At their inceptions, some of these projects were controversial. Many considered them too expensive; others doubted their efficacy. Today, few would question their value, but each of these undertakings depended on a strong and coordinated national vision."
More coordination needed
So what does Copps recommend? First, he suggests more coordination among and between federal, state, local, and tribal groups to ensure that programs work together as efficiently as possible. The report also recommends reviewing existing federal programs to identify barriers to rural broadband deployment. He also recommends that terminology used in describing programs be consistent with current laws.
But Copps also cautions policy makers against relying on a single technology as the answer to solving the rural broadband problem and emphasizes that "rural broadband likely will include a variety of different technologies that together can support the state-of-the-art, secure, and resilient broadband service that should be our goal for rural America, just as it is for the non-rural parts of the nation."
He also emphasizes the importance of knowing where broadband is already available and who is using it. He recommends that federal, state, local and tribal organizations coordinate efforts to collect data and map where broadband is available and where it's not. He added that more consumer education and training initiatives are needed to encourage rural residents to drive demand for broadband services. And finally, he emphasizes the need to work through existing issues that affect the deployment of broadband in rural communities.
Specifically, he says in the report that the agency needs to deal with proceedings dealing with the universal service fund, network openness, spectrum access, special access reform, intercarrier compensation, access to poles and rights of way, and video programming proceedings.
"Because the national broadband plan is not due until February 2010, it is prudent for the Commission to identify any pending and proposed Commission proceedings affecting rural broadband," he said.
Copps adds that all of these issues should be considered as it develops the national broadband plan, "balancing the desire to resolve these matters with the need to address rural broadband in the context of a much broader and forward-looking national broadband plan."