FCC and West Virginia seek tower installation reforms to reach rural customers

The FCC, along with the state of West Virginia, is seeking changes to the rules for tower deployment to make it easier for rural customers to gain broadband access. However, some states’ laws could stand in the way.

West Virginia currently ranks 48th in the nation for broadband availability, with 30 percent of its residents lacking broadband access. In an op-ed published in the Beckley Register Herald last week, Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai discussed ways to improve rural broadband access and elaborated on problems created by the spotty access.

“We listened to the stories of business owners who have struggled to grow because of inadequate high-speed internet access. We learned about the tourism industry losing repeat customers due to lack of broadband. And we heard about the challenge of attracting millennials to live, work and visit rural areas with limited connectivity,” they wrote.

One potential solution is to permit municipalities to install towers and thereby expand networks outside their own territories. This would allow them to reach rural customers who may live on the outskirts.

But local laws could prevent that change from taking place. As InsideSources noted last week, the change would violate state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee, along with others.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has previously expressed frustration with those laws. He argued last February that many such laws were passed due to aggressive lobbying by internet service providers, and fail to meet the needs of poor and rural customers.

“They should be able to make their own decisions about building the networks they need to thrive,” he said at the time.

In addition to that suggested reform, Pai also floated two additional ideas: speed up the permitting process to help smaller carriers compete in rural areas, a expand the number of broadband providers eligible to receive money from the Universal Service Fund.

Both suggestions are consistent with proposals Capito and Pai have made in the past.

Prior to publishing the op-ed, Capito and Pai met with residents at New River Gorge to hold a roundtable on broadband deployment.

“We discussed several solutions during last week’s roundtable, including reducing barriers to investing in infrastructure like fiber, streamlining regulations for wireless providers, encouraging public-private partnerships to improve technology, and ensuring accountability regarding taxpayer dollars intended for broadband development,” Capito and Pai wrote in the op-ed. “All of this would promote greater access and competition.”

For more:
- read the Beckley Register op-ed
- see the InsideSources article

Related articles:
FCC's Wheeler says rural US needs more 'Silicon Hollers' like Kentucky as he touts USF reform
FCC's Pai: USF rules hamper rural providers' broadband investment