White House Announces Broadband Council of Agencies to Narrow Cable Digital Divide

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By Lydia Beyoud

March 23 — President Barack Obama established the Broadband Opportunity Council March 23 to urge federal agencies with broadband Internet deployment authority to promote expanding broadband services—with a focus on wireline infrastructure—to rural and underserved areas of the U.S., according to a presidential memorandum.

Investment in next-generation Internet infrastructure nationwide is critical not only for students' ability to learn and create, but is also “a key for America’s ability to compete and lead in the world,” the president said March 23 at the White House Science Fair.

The council will work to encourage private and public investment in broadband infrastructure to ensure the country's global competitiveness, Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, said during a March 23 press call.

Eye on Muni-Broadband

That effort builds on the Federal Communications Commission's Feb. 26 vote to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee prohibiting municipal broadband projects from expanding their service areas, he said.

The council will provide recommendations to the president within 150 days on ways to promote broadband adoption and competition through incentives for new market entrants; modernizing regulations; and supporting state, local and tribal governments interested in encouraging or investing in high-speed broadband networks, the memo said.

To that end the council will seek ways to engage with the broadband industry and communities to remove barriers and realign existing programs to increase broadband competition, deployment and adoption, particularly in rural and underserved areas, the White House said.

The council will be co-chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and will include the heads of more than 25 federal agencies and government entities.

Congress also will have a role to play in expanding broadband access nationwide, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a news release. “The President's actions today are an important step forward,” he said, adding that Congress can help “connect our communities and make Wi-Fi more available for public use, which is why I urge the Senate to act on important legislation like the Community Broadband Act and the Wi-Fi Innovation Act,” Booker said.

Booker introduced the Community Broadband Act (S. 240) in January and reintroduced the Wi-Fi Innovation Act along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in February. Both are members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

New USDA Loans

The president's memo noted that more than 50 million Americans cannot purchase a wired broadband connection at the minimum speeds set by the Federal Communications Commission, and only 29 percent of Americans can choose from more than one service provider at that speed.

“As a result, the costs, benefits, and availability of high-speed broadband Internet are not evenly distributed—with considerable variation among States and between urban and rural areas,” the memo said.

To help close that gap, the Department of Agriculture simultaneously announced $35 million in additional broadband infrastructure loans to upgrade networks, convert copper lines to fiber and expand service areas in Arkansas, Iowa and New Mexico, Vilsack said during the press call.

Many rural areas still need help with accessing high-speed broadband infrastructure, Vilsack said.

The USDA will fund another 25 to 30 major projects over the course of 2015, Vilsack said.

The agency has invested in more than 500 projects since 2009 for a total of $5.88 billion through the Farm Bill broadband program, Title II Infrastructure, community Connect and Recovery Act programs, according to the agency's news release.

“The Administration's strong and deepening commitment to bridging the digital divide in rural America will be my focus on this Council,” Vilsack said in the USDA announcement.

“This is a good day for innovation and a good day for expanded opportunity to connect U.S. business, job seekers, farmers,” and ranchers to the rest of the world, Vilsack told reporters.

Local Carriers Said Key

Rural carriers' trade association welcomed the news. “Rather than casting about for ‘the next big thing' or launching new unproven initiatives from whole cloth, we should be looking to build upon what has worked in the past to deploy and then sustain rural broadband, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association CEO Shirley Bloomfield said in a news release.

The group said it hoped policymakers would continue to expand incentives for small, rural carriers, adding that “the best model for successful public-private partnerships—in fact, the only model that has had widespread success to date—involves the efforts of small, local carriers committed to their communities that leverage a mix of public and private financing to build networks and then make efficient use of universal service support to ensure that services remain affordable and of high-quality on those networks.”

Wireless Goal Met Early

The White House memo follows an announcement from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that the U.S. met the president's goal of ensuring 98 percent of the country has access to 4th Generation (4G) wireless broadband at a rate of at least 6 megabits per second (Mbps) down and 1.5 Mbps up.

With a 2016 deadline, the goal was met one year early thanks to “significant private investment,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

While CTIA-The Wireless Association, representing the nation's four largest wireless carriers as well as smaller members, said it welcomed the administration's efforts to reduce barriers to wireless broadband deployment, but said the administration's findings “represent a stark contrast with the FCC’s continued unwillingness to recognize that mobile broadband is being deployed on a timely and reasonable basis and the FCC’s recent decision to walk away from the light-touch, mobile-specific approach–and decades of consensus –that set the stage for mobile investment and helped meet the Administration’s own wireless broadband goal.”

The group called on the Obama administration to support a bipartisan legislative effort as an alternative to the FCC's Open Internet order.

With assistance from Cheryl Bolen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Text of the president's memo is at http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9uvmuk.

Text of a White House fact sheet on the council and loan program is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/23/fact-sheet-next-steps-delivering-fast-affordable-broadband.

Information on the USDA loans is at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/03/0073.xml&contentidonly=true.

The NTIA announcement is at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/blog/2015/national-broadband-map-has-helped-chart-broadband-evolution.