Building Partnerships for Broadband Expansion

That was the message of Jonathan Chambers, chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications commission, addressing the National Association of State Technology Directors at its annual conference in Cincinnati last month.

Chambers said the Federal Communications Commission—or FCC—is committed to partnering with the states and the private sector to extend the reach of broadband Internet to public institutions and rural areas. 

The effort to expand broadband Internet to public schools and libraries will draw its funding from the FCC’s E-Rate component of the Universal Service Fund. The Universal Service Fund established by the Communications Act of 1934, was originally created to provide telephony services to low-income and rural areas. With an update from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Universal Service Fund now covers advanced telecommunications services, including Internet service.

According to Chambers, the FCC made comprehensive reforms to the Universal Service Fund in 2014 that transformed the E-Rate program component from “one that subsidized service to one that invests in infrastructure.” Also, he said, beginning next year the program will provide additional funding—up to 10 percent—for wide area network circuits and Internet access to match state funding for special construction charges for high-speed broadband connections. These services have first funding priority with a newly established program cap of $3.9 billion.

Chambers said he believes the matching funds are attractive to states with broadband expansion projects in mind.

While Chambers agreed that the FCC and government agencies should be “technology neutral,” he said the FCC is committed to investing in fiber infrastructure for public schools and libraries for the next three to five years.  

In addition, Chambers said the FCC will work with private sector telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to expand broadband to rural areas through the Connect America Fund, another component of the Universal Service Fund.

In January 2015, the FCC revised its definition of broadband from four megabits per second for downloads and one megabit per second per upload to 25 megabits per second for downloads and three megabits per second per download. Under this new definition, the FCC maintains that 55 million Americans, 17 percent of the population, do not have access to broadband Internet service.

Chambers acknowledged that companies such as AT&T and Verizon do not have to build in rural areas on their own due to the high cost and low return of investing in such projects, but to date, 10 telecommunications providers have accepted funding from the CAF to help in this effort.  According to an Aug. 27 press release from the FCC, telecommunications providers have accepted $1.5 billion that will “expand broadband to nearly 7.3 million rural consumers in 45 states nationwide and one U.S. territory over the next few years.” For states that have no providers offering broadband expansion support, the FCC will allocate the remaining CAF funding through a competitive bidding process.

Chambers said that making high speed Internet access available throughout the country is a goal shared by both the federal government and the states, and that is why the FCC is looking to “partner with states that have the ability and the desire to make rural broadband a reality.” 

“The FCC is looking for partners with the same vision,” he said.


Additional Resources:

Federal Communications Commission

National Association of State Technology Directors