WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to fund broadband companies to provide better connectivity, including broadband and 4G LTE, to areas that are unserved.
“Access to high speed internet needs to be as much a part of a community’s infrastructure as passable roads, clean water and adequate electric services,” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at the FCC’s August meeting Thursday.
At least one in four Americans living in rural areas don’t have access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared with one in 50 city-dwellers, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. A recent analysis by the FCC shows that at least 575,000 square miles — approximately 750,000 road miles and 3 million people — either lack 4G LTE service or are only being served by subsidized 4G LTE providers, according to the FCC.
The commission decided to greenlight the process to award $198 million annually to service providers for 10 years to bring fixed broadband services to locations that are unserved and in high-cost areas. The FCC plans to begin in 2018.
Pai added that the FCC is “closing the digital divide in a fiscally responsible way.”
In February, the commission allocated funds — $4.53 billion over the next decade — for installation of 4G LTE mobile broadband services in areas across the country that do not have service. On Thursday, the commissioners added a process to challenge the FCC on areas that have been deemed ineligible by the guidelines. They also ordered a one-time collection of 4G LTE coverage data across the country.
“Finding ways to connect communities that have been left behind has been an obsession of mine,” Clyburn said. “We hear you and with this item, we are taking critical next steps.”
However, critics suspect that the funding will not be enough to cover all of the work that needs to be done to connect America.
“The FCC established an arbitrary cap without consideration of whether or not it is sufficient to accomplish the goal,” said Jill Canfield, vice president of legal and industry and assistant general counsel at the NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association. “We don’t know exactly how far the support will go toward ensuring that sustainable mobile broadband is offered throughout the country. It will depend on the bids received and where providers are willing to serve. We strongly suspect it is not enough.”
As far as the timeline, Canfield said that it’s “a very ambitious timeline, but there is a lot of work to be done before funds can be distributed.”
The FCC also adopted changes to its data collection forms, especially around access to broadband and voice services, to better integrate the data into the national broadband map, as well as other service maps.
Clyburn said on a recent trip to Appalachia, residents told her, “Despite what those maps in Washington say, we are not connected.”
Pai added that the dataset will help Congress make funding decisions, too.
“This is like the Game of Thrones of data sets in terms of the buzz that it generates in Washington,” he said.