FCC to Propose Extending Broadband to Rural Areas

The FCC plans to outline ways in which the Universal Service fund can be reformed to more efficiently extend broadband service to rural areas.

To bring the U.S. up to speed with many developed countries when it comes to broadband Internet access, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to offer a plan to streamline and reorganize an $8 billion fund. The fund-mostly contained in the Universal Service Fund-is aimed at bolstering broadband connectivity in rural U.S. homes, The New York Times reported.

According to a draft of Genachowski's Feb. 7 remarks obtained by the paper, the USF was "designed for a world with separate local and long-distance telephone companies, a world of traditional landline telephones before cell phones or Skype, a world without the Internet-a world that no longer exists."

The USF was created to meet Congressional universal service goals as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. One of the fund's main goals is to advance the availability of broadband services to all consumers, including those in low-income, rural, insular and high-cost areas, at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas. A reorganizing of the fund, paid for with a $1 to $2 tax on U.S. citizens' phone bills, would include a consolidation of payment methods and a phasing out of payments between telecommunications companies, according to the Times report.

"At the end of this transition, we would no longer subsidize telephone networks; instead, we would support broadband [as a replacement for traditional phone lines]," Genachowski said in his planned remarks. One overarching goal is to eliminate "inefficiencies and perverse incentives," which Congress has battled as it has watched the contribution rate by U.S. consumers nearly double in under a decade.

On Feb. 8, the FCC will take another step to further the goal of connecting all parts of the United States to the digital age by convening leaders from federal, state and local governments, broadband providers, telecommunications carriers, tower companies, equipment suppliers and utility companies to identify opportunities to remove regulatory and other barriers to broadband build-outs.

Participants are scheduled to discuss creative approaches that have been used to overcome challenges and foster cooperative, win-win situations in rights-of-way, pole attachment and tower location. The conference also will explore how innovative technologies and applications, such as smart-grid and intelligent transportation systems, and forward-looking policies, such as "dig once" mandates and leveraging public infrastructure to increase wireless communication capacity, can spur broadband deployment and drive economic growth and job creation.

Speakers will include Phil Weiser, senior advisor to the National Economic Council; Director for Technology and Innovation, Peter Appel; administrator for the Research and Innovative Technology Administration at the Department of Transportation; and Scott Blake Harris, general counsel of the Department of Energy.

While politicians on both sides of the aisle agree the fund and the United States' broadband infrastructure require reform, the FCC often finds itself mired in partisan bickering and legal action. In January, Verizon and MetroPCS filed suit challenging the body's new rules regarding the contentious issue of net neutrality regulation. The rules require all broadband providers to publicly disclose network-management practices, restrict broadband providers from blocking Internet content and applications, and bar fixed broadband providers from engaging in unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic.