The Farm Bill that is currently working it’s way through the house allocates an addition 1 billion dollars for rural broadband deployment. RFD-TV’s Sarah Mock checks in on the ongoing rural broadband work at USDA and beyond.
FCC commissioner Ajit Pai has made closing the digital divide in rural america his top priority over the last year.
“According to the FCC’s latest numbers, more than 24 million americans still lack access to fixed, terrestrial broadband at the 25 mbps standard. That’s 8% of the us population. These stats also show that this is largely a rural problem. Only 2% of rural americans can’t get high speed on broadband, but it’s 30%, almost 1 in 3, for rural americans.”
Part of his strategy involves new funding programs to get critical funds to the companies who build physical infrastructure to bring internet connectivity to rural communities, including reverse auctions.
“By one estimate, reverse auctions can lower the cost of connecting an area by some 20%, and that means that we can stretch these scarce dollars even further and connect even more americans. We’ve done a lot to make sure that the auction is available to everyone regardless of technology or sector of the industry.”
Bidding for this auction is planned to start on July 24th, and Pai says this process will make a big dent in the fixed side of the digital divide. But the FCC is also focused on wireless infrastructure, and will invest 4.53 billion dollars over the next decade in 4g lte service in particular underserved rural areas.
“We are structuring the mobility fund to serve land area instead of just road miles, that is coverage not only for the concrete of the highways, but for the soils of america’s croplands and ranchlands. And we made this decision in large part because we know that farmers and ranchers need wireless connectivity in order to remain productive and competitive.”
USDA is also active in broadband deployment, and the Ag secretary says he’s looking forward to supporting FCC’s and private industry efforts to connect rural america through allocations in the 2018 farm bill as well as with 600 million dollars in funding USDA received in the recent omnibus spending package.
“We need a national strategy about broadband connectivity across the country, connecting urban, rural, suburban, with one another to be really effective in transforming this country in the future. So whether or not the money is adequate, it’s a good start, once again, I don’t think it’s expected of the federal government or any government to do everything. We want a business model that’s sustainable and viable for the future with a subscriber base, but often times it takes a government entity to take that risk to get it over the top at the beginning to where the companies can take over.”
Pai emphasized his focus on a common complaint for lawmakers – that FCC universal service funds go to subsidize additional competitors in areas where private investment already exists, rather than on truly unserved or underserved areas. pai says focusing on communities that truly have no access is his top priority.
Additional funding for rural broadband was expected in an upcoming infrastructure plan, which was proposed by the white house earlier this year, though talks on this plan have stalled in congress in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.
Ajit Pai, Federal Communications Commission Chairman
Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary Of Agriculture
Washington Bureau Chief, RFD-TV