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FCC Commits $100M to Rural Experiments

Carol Wilson

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's determination to add WiFi to the agency's E-Rate program that brings broadband connectivity to schools and libraries was the big news out of Washington last Friday, but there was also a smaller step forward to experiment with allowing utilities, wireless operators, and CLECs to deliver broadband service to underserved high-cost areas of the US.

The E-Rate measure, including $1 billion for WiFi connections, passed by a partisan 3-2 vote but drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, as you can read in this article from The Hill.

Much less controversial was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote to back a much smaller chunk of funding -- up to $100 million total -- to support a series of broadband experiments, to be chosen through an application process that will favor the most cost-effective and those who find matching funds.

More than 1,000 entities have expressed interest in the projects, including utilities, wireless operators, and CLEC affiliates of local telcos, according to the FCC.

There are three types of projects sought: Three-quarters of the funding will go to projects which bring 25 Mbit/s downstream and 5 Mbit/s upstream to underserved areas, while up to $15 million will fund similar projects delivering 10 Mbit/s downstream and 1 Mbit/s upstream, and $10 million will fund those delivering the 10 Mbit/1 Mbit speeds to extremely high-cost areas, the hardest to serve.

Carol Mattey, deputy bureau chief for the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau, said the idea is to gather information the agency will then use in crafting the rules for the reverse auction process it intends to use to fund a broader set of projects aimed at bringing broadband to rural areas across America.

The Utilities Telecom Council Inc. applauded the FCC for including utilities.

"By encouraging utilities and others to provide broadband that is robust, affordable and reliable, the FCC is creating new opportunities to promote economic growth and expanded access to health and safety, education, and essential services in our rural communities," said Connie Durcsak, President and CEO of UTC, in a statement.

The only dissenting FCC voice for this effort came from Republican Michael O'Rielly, who questioned the delay that running a series of experiments would cause for actually starting the process of getting rural broadband networks built.

Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic commissioner, stressed the need for winning projects to find other sources of funding, particularly state funding, since extending the reach of broadband is a federal-state partnership, she said.

Meanwhile, the Competitive Carrier Association, the members of which are rural wireless operators, expressed concerns that wireless providers will be shut out from participating in the experiments because of the speed requirements.

"If structured properly, the proposed experiments could provide unprecedented insight into the way broadband deployment is promoted throughout the country," said CCA President & CEO Steven K. Berry said in a statement. "Unfortunately, based on today's presentation it appears the Commission has missed a valuable opportunity ... Making the vast majority of funding contingent on achieving speeds that are several multiples higher than those required of price-cap carriers in receiving [Connect America Fund] Phase I funding makes little sense ... Wireless carriers contribute more to the fund than wireline carriers, and yet the FCC's rules are technology biased away from consumer-desired mobile services.”

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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