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Rural broadband month: Taking steps to bridge the digital divide

Those of you who live and work in rural America already know the problems associated with poor connectivity. It's hard to do business or keep in touch with loved ones when your cell phone calls drop off and you can't connect to the internet.

The Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has been learning this first hand, and it's not just in the mid-section of our country where farms and towns are sometimes spread several miles apart.

"It's a real and pressing challenge just a short drive from our nation's capital," he wrote in a recent blog post. "More than 70 percent of the world's internet traffic runs through data centers in northern Virginia, but you can't even get 4G LTE wireless service on more than 7,700 road miles in rural parts of the same state."

The good news is that Pai is calling attention to the problems, designating August as "Rural Broadband Month" at the FCC and, along with several senators, taking steps to help expand broadband service in rural areas.

The FCC moved forward with plans to hold a "reverse auction" next year to provide nearly $2 billion over 10 years to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas that do not have fixed broadband service. The commission is seeking comments on how to run the auction, including how interested parties can qualify to participate, how bidders will submit bids, and how the FCC will process those bids to determine the winners and support amounts.

"We expect that this auction will attract companies that have never before received universal service funding," Chairman Pai said at the commission's Aug. 3 meeting. "Among others, I'm thinking here about some small competitive providers and electrical co-operatives that want to bring fiber to neighbors currently on the wrong side of the divide. And fixed wireless providers that can efficiently serve remote areas."

The auction, which has been in the works since 2011, "is all about making sure that those in rural America . . . have access to the same economic opportunities as those in more densely populated communities," FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

While the auction is welcome news, rural areas still have a long way to go, said Mike Romano, senior vice president of policy at NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association.

"By and large, we think it's a positive," Romano said, who also noted that "it's been pending for a long time."

But Romano said the FCC's auction doesn't address a larger funding problem that exists now for smaller carriers that serve rural areas. The FCC's Universal Service Fund is suffering from budget cuts that have reduced the amount of support flowing to small, rural carriers, who serve 40 percent of the U.S. land mass. (The USF is funded by a quarterly fee charged to telecom companies and is supposed to "ensure reasonably comparable services are available at reasonably comparable rates in rural and urban areas alike," Romano said in testimony to the House Small Business Committee in June.)

The auction is helpful, he said, but without fixes to the USF, rural consumers are being forced to pay tens or even hundreds of dollars per month more than people in urban areas.

NTCA was more positive about legislation that cleared the Senate last week to improve rural call completion and remove barriers to broadband development.

The Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act of 2017, S. 96, was sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., John Thune, R-S.D., and Jon Tester, D-Mont. The act "would direct the FCC to require providers that transmit voice calls to register with the agency and establish quality standards for transmitting voice calls," according to a news release from Klobuchar's office. "These reforms would ensure small businesses, families, and emergency responders in rural America can once again rely upon their telephone calls being completed."

"Senate passage of this legislation is another critical step in the long road to resolving call quality and reliability issues that have plagued rural Americans for years," said NTCA Chief Executive Shirley Bloomfield. "We believe this bill is important in bringing greater transparency to the call routing marketplace, and it sends a critical, bipartisan message that now is not the time to backslide on efforts to address call completion problems that threaten public safety, businesses and the general well-being of countless Americans. We look forward to working with the Senate and House of Representatives, which approved a similar bill earlier this year, to ensure the measure is signed into law."

Another piece of legislation that made it through the Senate was S.19, the Making Opportunities for Broadband Investment and Limiting Excessive and Needless Obstacles to Wireless (MOBILE NOW) Act, which NTCA said is aimed at addressing "a variety of challenges faced by carriers seeking to deploy wireless and wireline infrastructure alike in rural America."

The bill, introduced by Thune and Ranking Member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is designed "to boost the development of next-generation gigabit wireless broadband services, including 5G, by ensuring more spectrum is made available for commercial use and by reducing the red tape associated with building broadband networks," according to Thune's office.

Editor's note: Agri-Pulse Associate Editor Steve Davies contributed to this report.

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