FCC’s $20B rural broadband fund shortens the journey to total connectivity

Proceeds for fund will come from user service taxes

We’ve been keeping a close eye on what is happening with rural broadband service in Lee County.

We started reporting on it close to a year ago, when state legislators and economic development officials began barking that current Lee County maps were inaccurate and what is called “census block data” wasn’t providing a clear picture of the real service levels in our rural areas.

On Friday, the FCC firmed up a commitment to put $20.4 billion, into a Rural Digital Opportunity fund to help address some of the issues facing poor broadband service in rural parts of America.

Our look into rural broadband has revealed a couple basic points. Number 1, the current mapping system based on what’s called a Form 477, does not paint a clear picture of rural Internet service in America, specifically the tri-state area and Lee County. No. 2, we’re all going to pay to fund rural broadband improvements.

And we should. It’s an economic development must, like natural gas, rail access, river access and other things that make this area an attractive location for business and industry looking for new locations.

The 477 form is based on information provided by Internet Service Providers that indicates a minimum level of service (minimum meaning a minimal level of download/upload speeds) in any particular polygonal census block.

But the punch there typically lies in the fact that one building, say a school, could have minimum-service, or better, and the ISPs report that “census block” which obviously includes more than just the school, has a certain level of service. But the home 1/4 mile down the road from the school may have reduced service or no service at all.

Under pressure from legislators, service providers and the public, the Federal Communication Commission created the Digital Opportunity Data Collection on Aug. 1 to help formulate a more accurate, or “granular” look at rural broadband access. The new rule from the FCC also creates a public input model to verify accuracy. The FCC said during commission hearings that Form 477 would still remain in use for now.

According to the FCC report of Aug. 1, the commission will limit the new data collection obligations to fixed broadband providers at present, and seek comment on how best to incorporate mobile wireless coverage data into the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

A second notice from the FCC in that report focuses on the data collection from satellite broadband services, as well as providing an avenue for specific homes and business that do not have broadband service at some level.

The commission in August directed the following groups, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), under the oversight of the Commission’s Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA), the Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB), Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (WTB), and the International Bureau (IB) to develop a new portal to accept broadband coverage maps, called polygons from fixed providers, as well as public feedback on the accuracy of these broadband maps.

The public feedback, it seems, is going to be collected through a system called “crowdsourcing”.

The irony seems to be that ‘crowdsourcing” is usually done via the Internet. So that would mean rural homeowners would have to go somewhere else to access Internet service to alert the collection service as to their poor level of service.

Guess it’s back to restaurants and libraries for free wife access, but it may be worth doing. According to the report, the FCC has a consumer complaints division, and they are directing USAC to come up with a tracking method for inaccurate data.

The news is good. We’ve had conversations with ISP providers, economic development officials and legislators and all have said this won’t be a quick fix. But because conversations are taking place, a bright light is being shined on the issue. Throughout history, that’s how progress has been made.

Providers say they can’t make sense of investing millions in fiber optic cable to connect every home in every county in their service areas. When you think of what the average homeowner pays for Internet service at their homes, and what it would cost to physically run rural cabling to catch homes that are sometimes miles apart, they have a point.

So they turn to the government to help subsidize the connections. Without the government’s help the market will determine when and if rural customers get better service. And that’s a bleak picture to be sure.

Getting your hands on a piece of the $20.4 billion will be left to the providers in what’s called a “reverse auction” where providers can show where they can best provide additional service for the least amount of money. A timeline hasn’t been set on when that money can or will be disbursed.

But it’s big news for rural Iowans. Something’s being done. We hear stories of parents having to take their children into places like McDonald’s to do homework because almost all is done through laptops even at the youngest grade levels. Poor internet speeds, or no service at all, handicaps those students and families.

That’s sad because we live in country where everyone has access to utilities in their homes. The Internet is essentially a utility and it won’t be long before it’s a legal utility that has to be provided to every citizen.

Governmental agencies, schools, emergency responders…. everyone is using the Internet and those that don’t have access are at a disadvantage.

A lot of the information coming out of the FCC is still being argued amongst commission members, but they’re arguing as the walk down the road and not digging their heals in.

It’s still going to take some time to connect all of America, it just gets more attention here in the rural areas, where people already feel left behind. The fact the wheels are turning, means energy toward that connection is being generated.

Speaking of the Internet at some point being classified as a consumer utility like gas and electric, newspapers of record need to be wary of that change because it’s doubtful governmental agencies will be required to pay for legal ads when everyone can access them online. Newspapers make hundreds of thousands of dollars off legal advertising…and they’re already bleeding ad revenue. But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is the editor/co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at editor@pencitycurrent.com

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