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The FCC: Steps Up for Rural Communities

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Recent years have been good to Americans with access to high-speed broadband.  Record numbers of us have smartphones and home broadband, according to a Pew report this year and average U.S. broadband speeds have more than tripled since 2011.

But far too many Americans still lack broadband access, especially in rural areas.  The FCC's 2016 Broadband Progress Report concluded that 39% of rural Americans did not have access to fixed broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up).  By comparison, only 4% of urban residents lack access.


Moreover, high-speed internet prices are also significantly higher in rural areas.  A recent analysis claimed that rural residents pay as much as 300% more for comparable service than suburban residents.


As a son of rural America it is good to see a bipartisan consensus forming on improving rural broadband, both in Congress and at the FCC. Give credit to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has made rural broadband improvement a cornerstone of his service as Chair.


Last week, under Pai's leadership, a unanimous FCC approved separate procedures to speed the Commission's two most important rural broadband initiatives.  These procedures involve data collection and decision challenges for the upcoming Connect America Fund II and Mobility Fund II auctions, which begin in 2018.  The details are complex (see here and here) but together, their adoption signals a heightened seriousness at the FCC for helping residents in small towns and communities to gain the broadband access that Americans in urban areas have had for years.


The stakes with this issue are huge.  A 2015 study by university researchers found that among similarly situated rural counties, those with more households connected to broadband had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those with fewer. The study also found that rural counties with lower broadband adoption saw slower growth in the number of firms and total employment than similar counties with higher adoption.


As one of the authors, Professor Sharon Strover, told The Wall Street Journal this spring:

"Having access to broadband is simply keeping up. Not having it means sinking."

This lack of broadband hits hard in many rural communities - for example, the 911 dispatcher in Missouri who was unable to track approaching storms because the Internet kept going out. This lack of viable access is also contributing to the population stagnation felt in many rural communities across the Midwest.


With the exception of the last few years, U.S. broadband policy for decades operated free from the partisan shouting that paralyzed progress on other issues. The past few years saw a breakdown of this unity but happily, things seem to be moving in the right direction, at least on rural deployment. 


Chairman Pai deserves credit for this. Here's hoping that he can keep this progress going.



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