In Advanced Broadband Era, Rural America Left Behind

More than half of the population in rural America, or 22 million citizens, lacks swift broadband access, according to benchmark speeds adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

More than one-third of U.S. schools lack fiber access, falling short of FCC benchmarks.The Commission on Thursday cited an even greater digital divide on Tribal lands and in U.S. territories where nearly two-thirds of residents can’t obtain download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and 3 Mbps for uploads.

In total, 55 million people, or 17 percent of Americas, are deprived of advanced broadband access, according to the FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report.

The data likely would paint a different picture if broadband were defined as 4Mbps (download)/1Mpbs (upload), the standard set by the FCC in 2010. For instance, the FCC found in a 2012 broadband report that only roughly one-quarter of Americans who reside in rural areas can’t obtain the 4Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds. But the latter standard is outdated and insufficient to evaluate whether advanced broadband is being timely deployed to all Americans, the agency said in a news release.

“Four Mbps is less than the recommended capacity to stream a single HD video. Now consider that the average connected household has seven Internet-connected devices – including televisions, desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “On any given evening, it would not be surprising to see one child doing online homework, another streaming a movie, one parent uploading data files for work, and another parent paying bills or downloading photos while also streaming music or video.”

“It is about time, and this should not be the end of upgrading standards,” noted George Foote, a partner with the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, in a statement.

“The technology is well-known and generally available, and faster service is necessary for growth of the economy today,” added Foote, who is based in Washington, D.C., and has represented technology and telecommunications companies. “Faster service and higher standards should be as normal as upgraded smartphones and new apps.”

The FCC divulged that 35 percent of schools don’t have access to fiber; therefore, it’s likely that they don’t meet the Commission’s short-term benchmark of 100Mbps per 1,000 users, the agency said. Fewer schools can meet the long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 users, according to the release.

The FCC has issued a notice of inquiry to investigate further steps it can take to promote advanced broadband. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC must report annually on the status of broadband deployment to Americans.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association supported efforts to increase broadband speeds, but it indicated rural carriers must deploy networks with fewer resources today since intercarrier compensation revenues–the fees carriers pay each other to originate and terminate calls–are continuing to decline and universal service subsidies are the same size they were four years ago.

“Today’s finding only underscores the need for a thoughtful conversation about the universal service resources really needed to achieve and sustain reasonable comparability between rural and urban areas as required by law and public policy,” said Michael Romano, NTCA’s senior vice president of policy, in a statement. “Absent such a serious conversation, we will just keep kicking the can down the country road and sentence rural areas to second-class broadband over time.”

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