FCC Carries Rural Broadband Baton as Infrastructure Plan Languishes

By Ayanna Alexander

Bringing high-speed internet access to more of rural America is a policy goal that’s popular among Republicans and Democrats alike.

Twenty-three million rural Americans lack access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report. Washington policymakers and companies such as Microsoft Corp. want to bring that number down.

But the issue isn’t moving very fast on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers from both parties, along with President Donald Trump, want to include rural broadband provisions in a larger infrastructure bill, a move that would benefit smaller wireless providers such as United States Cellular Corp. and C Spire Wireless as well as equipment companies. But infrastructure has taken a back seat so far to health-care and tax legislation in the 115th Congress. It’s unclear, at best, whether any infrastructure legislation will advance this year.

For now, all of the action on rural broadband is at the FCC, where chairman Ajit Pai has made the issue a top priority. The commission plans to vote Aug. 3 on several related initiatives.

“Bridging the digital divide and expanding access to wired and wireless networks will be the central theme of our August meeting,” Pai wrote in a blog post outlining the meeting agenda.

Despite the commission’s focus, however, small and rural wireless providers worry that the agency will be slow or insufficient in serving the areas that need broadband most.

Mobility Fund Concerns

The FCC is planning to vote on changing how it distributes money under its Mobility Fund, which subsidizes rural wireless network build-out. The FCC is set to launch a reverse auction to determine which rural wireless providers get money under Phase II of the program, which the FCC expects will disburse roughly $4.5 billion over 10 years. The Aug. 3 vote is intended to focus that money on building out 4G LTE service in areas that lack it altogether, Pai said.

The FCC plans to vote on whether to collect provider data on high-speed wireless broadband availability outside of its routine data collection procedures. It also intends to vote on whether to establish a challenge process to let stakeholders push for funding in any area the FCC initially deems ineligible for Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) support. Areas would be ineligible if they host at least one provider offering unsubsidized LTE broadband service delivering download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps).

Some small broadband providers are concerned about the FCC’s planned approach. Trade groups representing small and rural telecom companies, such as NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, had proposed other ways of determining eligibility. The FCC’s proposal echoes one from CTIA, a wireless industry group representing large broadband providers AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and others.

“We think the proposal that was chosen is going to slow the MF-II disbursement of funding down and take longer,” Jan Canfield, NTCA’s vice president of legal and industry, told Bloomberg BNA.

NTCA wanted the FCC to use existing broadband coverage data to compile a list of areas it believes would be eligible and ineligible for federal support. Unsubsidized providers in areas deemed tentatively ineligible would have then had to report their own coverage data, subject to challenge from competitors. In NTCA’s view, that approach would have reduced burdens on small providers while more quickly and accurately arriving at a final list of eligible areas, Canfield said.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment.

To be sure, at least one provider is concerned the FCC’s planned approach doesn’t follow the CTIA proposal closely enough. C Spire, a regional wireless operator in the southeastern U.S., believes the FCC’s proposal could overstate rural wireless coverage.

“We’re concerned because we understand that the FCC will be looking at more relaxed measurements than what CTIA recommended,” Eric Graham, C Spire’s senior vice president of strategic relations, told Bloomberg BNA. The FCC is proposing lower standards on network capacity and wireless signal reliability in its definition of LTE service than CTIA had wanted.

The FCC is also set to vote to start gathering input on how the agency should collect broadband and voice coverage data. Currently, providers file documents at the commission, known as Form 477 filings, indicating the location and level of services they offer. The FCC is considering changes such as having providers collect more detailed data for their entire footprints; monitoring networks to see if subscribers are actually getting advertised speeds; and requiring more frequent filings.

Any changes the FCC makes to Form 477 collection would shape its maps of nationwide broadband coverage. Those maps, in turn, would likely affect future funding and actions the FCC directs toward accelerating rural broadband deployment. It’s not yet clear if the changes the agency ultimately makes will satisfy critics.

Private-Sector Moves

Some companies are looking to move on initiatives that wouldn’t rely on federal incentives. But those pose their own challenges.

Microsoft Corp., for instance, announced July 10 that it wants to deliver wireless broadband to 2 million rural Americans across 12 states by 2022. The company’s proposal to do so has already drawn opposition from broadcasters and groups representing rural interests, who worry it could interfere with rural over-the-air TV signals.

Microsoft’s Rural Airband initiative would deliver internet service over unused frequencies in the broadcast band known as “TV white spaces.” The plan could disrupt broadcasters’ ability to switch to next-generation TV signals and move their broadcasts to new frequencies following the FCC’s auction of broadcast spectrum for wireless use, groups including the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Farmers Union have told the FCC.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and 42 other Republican and Democratic lawmakers July 31 called on the FCC to preserve “at least three, 6 MHz television white spaces channels in every media market across the United States in order to promote access to affordable broadband internet, particularly in rural and underserved areas.”

Eye on Congress

Some lawmakers have said a focus on rural broadband could unify a Congress that is in a partisan gridlock over other issues, including health care.

“There’s a real opportunity for bipartisan work and there’s potential” to pass legislation to spur rural broadband infrastructure investment, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told Bloomberg BNA.

But lawmakers still have to answer several fundamental questions before they can start crafting legislation, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said during a recent Washington, D.C. event.

“How do you get barriers and red tape out of the way?” Blackburn said. “How do you simplify it for companies to want to participate? New dollars, investments — where will they come from, and where will they go to?”

The need to answer such questions—and for the White House to launch the whole process with an infrastructure proposal—has pushed off concerted congressional action for now. That leaves the FCC on its own in balancing carrier concerns to promote rural broadband access.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

For the tentative agenda on the FCC's upcoming meeting: http://src.bna.com/q0i

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