Today, many rural areas — including large swaths of rural Maine where I live, as well as across the country — cannot access broadband Internet service. This is highly problematic, not only for these communities, but for our nation as a whole. The Federal Communications Commission needs to implement the right reforms to end rural areas’ technological isolation.
Powerful and reliable broadband service helps create jobs; advance educational opportunities at our public schools, community and business colleges, and universities; modernize healthcare; and enhance emergency services. Where I live, in Aroostook County, it would also simply be nice to be able to get in touch with people when needed.
The FCC’s Connect America Fund, or CAF, was put in place in 2011 to help expand the broadband infrastructure in America’s many rural areas. CAF was meant to bring broadband to about 7 million people by 2017 and all 19 million un-served rural residents by 2020. We’re not even close to the larger goal being fulfilled.
Today, the FCC is focusing on a second phase of CAF funding (CAF Phase II), which will allocate $1.8 billion each year to build out broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Problem is, absent some big changes, CAF Phase II as written will end up leaving many rural residents behind.
How? For example, the FCC now requires download speeds of 10 Mbps, up from 4 Mbps. I agree faster speeds are vital, but the current program cannot support such a mandate. To make this requirement feasible, the FCC must put its resources towards fiber broadband build-out — the only realistic option given the download speeds required.
The FCC must also extend the funding period in question to 10 years to give enough time for such build-out to be undertaken and completed. And providers should be able to get refunds for build-out expenses in very remote (and therefore costly) locations.
At the same time, the new rules would also mean large numbers of rural communities appear covered, when in fact they are not. Basing broadband access decisions on uncorroborated provider Census block reporting is preposterous. And unlicensed fixed wireless Internet service providers — currently acceptable as a substitute for much more reliable, facilities-based fiber broadband — is wholly inadequate. Funding needs to be made available in challenged Census blocks, and FCC standards updated to be in line with the 10 Mbps speed requirement.
The FCC must also allow those receiving CAF II funding the flexibility to match the new requirements while also being able to handle the inevitable, unforeseeable hurdles that will come up, especially in particularly hard-to-reach communities. This includes allowing CAF II funds to be allocated for build-out to unserved customers and communities in Census blocks currently seen as “covered.”
With these changes, the FCC will do a great service for both our rural communities and the United States as a whole: achieving the decades-old goal of universal broadband coverage.
Absent these reforms, however, millions of rural Americans will continue to effectively be abandoned to a technological desert island. I strongly believe this is unacceptable given the ubiquity of services, programs, and commercial and educational activities that require robust broadband in today’s world.
Maine’s potato, broccoli, and grain farmers — like their counterparts across this great nation — both need and deserve access to broadband. The FCC needs to get CAF Phase II right from the start.
Sue McCrum of Mars Hill is president of American Agri-Women, the nation’s largest coalition of farm, ranch, and agribusiness women with more than 50 state, commodity, and agribusiness affiliate organizations throughout the country.