FCC To Examine Rural Broadband Needs

A new report indicates that there will be a multiplicity of solutions ranging from cable and DSL to satellite and broadband over power lines.
Attention rural Americans: The Federal Communications Commission admits it doesn't know how much broadband access is available in your rural area, but it says it will attempt to find out.

In a report released this week by FCC acting Chairman Michael Copps, the FCC takes a stab at developing a policy to provide broadband to rural areas. The report indicates that there will be a multiplicity of solutions ranging from cable and DSL to satellite and broadband over power lines. The report makes it clear that more study is required before a strategy to deliver broadband to rural areas can be formulated.

"I view this report as a prelude to, and building block for, the national broadband plan, which will address in greater detail and on a vastly more complete record, the input of all stakeholders and the steps the nation much take to achieve its broadband goals," Copps said in a statement, adding that the FCC's study of rural broadband needs will be a "critical step in the commission's efforts to develop an effective, efficient, and achievable national broadband plan."

The FCC has been charged by Congress via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to develop the broadband plan by February 2010. Some $7.2 billion has been allocated for broadband grants, loans, and loan guarantees to be administered by the departments of Agriculture and Commerce.

Providing broadband to rural areas is particularly challenging because of the high costs associated with delivering broadband to most rural areas. One major broadband supplier -- Verizon Communications -- has been turning over its landlines in several rural states to smaller companies so it can concentrate on delivering broadband and other advanced technologies in urban areas. On the other extreme, IBM has recently begun to work to supply broadband over power lines in rural areas.

Supporting government involvement in delivering broadband to rural areas, the FCC report notes that government support will improve the reliability of important local services like law enforcement and emergency services.

"Providing broadband access to rural communities will not only enhance farmers and ranchers' ability to market goods and enhance production, it will help residents in rural communities obtain needed medical care, gain access to higher education, and benefit from resulting economic activity and job growth," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said.

In a letter to Vilsack and additional federal officials Friday, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners urged federal agencies and officials involved in reviewing and disbursing the ARRA broadband funds to make use of the expertise of state agencies and officials.

"The states can facilitate this review process and perhaps allow [the] release of funds much sooner," according to the letter. "Indeed, without state assistance, even with the current schedule, it will be almost impossible to efficiently review the anticipated thousands of applications."

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