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FCC Still Bemoans Rural Broadband Gap

Carol Wilson
1/29/2016

The broadband access gap in the US isn't closing very fast, and the rural digital divide still looms quite large, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report, adopted by the FCC today. That last statistic shouldn't come as a huge surprise to anyone, least of all the federal regulators themselves. (See FCC: Rural Broadband Progress Slowing.)

The report says 17% of Americans and 53% of rural Americans still can't get broadband, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as 25 Megabits per second downstream and 4 Mbits/s upstream. The overall figure represents just a 3% improvement over the 2014 report, a pace the regulators say is inadequate. Worst of all is broadband coverage for Americans living on tribal lands.

Given the way in which so much of our lives require online access, it's not unreasonable to think that everyone should have it -- the issue is always what broadband should be and who should pay for it. The FCC report says there needs to be additional action by both the public and private sectors.

The report immediately came under fire from a major Washington policy think tank, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which is funded by Cisco, Google and the Communications Workers of America among others but known for its non-partisan stands. Writing in The Innovation Files blog, Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst with ITIF, calls the FCC's conclusions "erroneous" and based on "a highly strained reading of the evidence."


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He particularly chides the agency for sticking to the 25/4 Mbits/s standard, which he calls arbitrary, and for not taking mobile broadband into account. Fixed line broadband access may have peaked in 2013 and could be supplanted by wireless access by many users for many reasons. Blake argues that a more realistic reading shows the US is making reasonable progress on broadband nationally and that the government should focus its help on areas where it's uneconomic for the private sector to deliver.

The FCC says it's now opening a notice of inquiry to ask how it can better support rural broadband. I'm no expert in that field but I spent a substantial period of time last summer attending regional meeting with the NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association , and listening to what its members were saying about the complicated and often contradictory formulas the FCC uses for determining funding for rural broadband buildouts. (See FCC Plan Could Stymie Rural Broadband.)

It shouldn't be that hard for the FCC to hear what these folks are saying with or without a formal NoI process. Helping them survive may not be popular policy -- there are plenty of folks who think small rural companies are an inefficient way to deliver broadband -- but at least these companies are trying, which is more than many large incumbents are doing in the rural areas they still hold.

But if the commissioners aren't going to do something more sensible than their current approach to delivering better rural broadband, then all these new annual reports and the accompanying handwringing are pretty pointless.

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

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thebulk
thebulk
2/16/2016 | 11:30:34 AM
Re: So now what
@Birdawg, I have to agree with you, though it would be nice to think that fiber could reach everywhere, the reality is that cost just won't let that happen. 
brooks7
brooks7
2/15/2016 | 4:42:37 PM
Re: So now what
Except that there is little distance limitation with fiber.  If you use PON, you have 60 km - point to point even more. Millimeter Wave systems are a last mile thing.  Not a long reach thing.  The thing is that in rural areas the problem is not the last mile but the previous 19 miles.

seven
Birdawg
Birdawg
2/15/2016 | 1:43:19 PM
Re: So now what
As you would with fiber, when it reaches its distance limits, you simply rebroadcast the signal.  I get that 20 miles for one shot is very difficult and I am not saying you only use mmWave.  I believe a mix of fiber and mmWave is the answer.
brooks7
brooks7
2/15/2016 | 12:48:22 PM
Re: So now what
First time we deployed DSL at AFC was to a ranch that was 20 miles from the CO with Valley Telephone in West Texas.  There were no other subs nearby.  How are you going to get your mm wavelength stuff out there?  That is rural.  Solve that problem then you can start thinking about this more broadly.

seven

 
Birdawg
Birdawg
2/15/2016 | 11:39:36 AM
Re: So now what
Wireless has come a long way in the technology with regards to reliability and throughput no doubt.  To reach the farm with fiber is just not going to happen in our lifetimes, so in my mind wireless is the only way to deliver high speed braodband to the rural areas.  And of course I am bias on the topic, however, I believe mmWave is going to help reach our BB goals.
thebulk
thebulk
2/2/2016 | 1:05:45 AM
Re: So now what
no doubt that wireless is going to be the futur especially for rural areas, but it doesnt mean that companies wont complaine about the costs.
danielcawrey
danielcawrey
2/1/2016 | 5:04:28 PM
Re: So now what
I really think the future is in wireless anyway. 

Look, the best way to get coverage in rural areas at this point is not to lay expensive broadband lines. There are a bunch of companies that focus on wireless, from satellites to blimps. Those are going to be the cost effective options. 
thebulk
thebulk
1/31/2016 | 2:51:19 PM
So now what
So report on it, and then do nothing.... seems to be typical on this topic for the past decade at least. 
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