Wheeler: Rural areas are falling behind the broadband curve

Despite ongoing efforts by Tier 3 ILECs to bring broadband to more of their serving territories, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says that a large amount of rural areas still can't get access to any broadband service.

"The facts are -- and you know this full well -- that rural America is in many ways falling behind the broadband curve," Wheeler said. 

Speaking during the annual NTCA conference, Wheeler said that a large amount of rural communities can't get access to a 25 Mbps connection.

According to the FCC's estimates, over half -- 53 percent – can't get access to a 25/3 Mbps connection. The situation is even worse in Tribal lands where nearly two thirds -- 63 percent -- can get access.

"The disparity persists at all speeds," Wheeler said. "For example, even at only 4 megabits per second down and 1 megabit per second up, 20 percent of Americans in rural areas cannot get that level of service." 

It's a different situation in urban communities where only 1 percent of consumers can't get access to a 25 Mbps speed service.

"It is not acceptable for large swaths of our country to be bypassed by the broadband revolution and the opportunities that it enables," Wheeler said. "This is where the FCC can and should to step in to help you serve your communities."

Wheeler said that in order to close the rural broadband gap, providers have to be able to provide a service that's "reasonably comparable" to what's offered in either an urban or suburban area.

"There is no reason why we should expect anything less for rural Americans than we expect for Americans in urban and suburban communities," Wheeler said. "We have established a national baseline of 25 megabits per second down for broadband."

He added that in rural areas that have no broadband access today, service providers can use the second phase of the Connect America Fund (CAF-II) to deliver a 10/1 Mbps connection. A number of large telcos, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier and Windstream accepted CAF-II funding to carry out this mission.

"We recognize that in rural areas that are unserved today there will have to be a stepwise progression to that goal, so we established a minimum service level of 10 megabits per second down for recipients of USF support," Wheeler said. "I can't emphasize enough that this is a minimum, the start of a step-by-step process -- we want to support networks that are capable of world-class speeds because that's what rural Americans deserve."

As it works to further reform the Universal Service Fund to focus on broadband, Wheeler laid out a four-part plan to ensure it can weed out potential program abuses: a voluntary path to a cost-model-based support mechanism; a new mechanism for all loop costs; a transition period to phase in this new plan in a timely but reasonable manner; and a program budget and other measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the program.

For more:
- see Chairman Wheeler's speech

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