Better Maps, Agency Coordination Needed for Rural Broadband, Senate Told

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Federal agencies must improve broadband data collection, mapping and coordination to better direct funding and prevent network overbuilding, witnesses testified at a Senate Communications Subcommittee rural broadband hearing Tuesday. The issue affects infrastructure deployment.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. John Thune (R-SD), said he led the call five months ago for the FCC to restore predictability to the agency’s Universal Service Fund’s High Cost program and the Commission took action to do so. 

He said there needs to be cooperation between Congress, the FCC and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.

Last year’s spending bill directed the Rural Utilities Service to develop a pilot program to distribute $600 million to advance broadband deployment in underserved rural areas, Thune noted. The “ReConnect” program received an additional $550 million this year.  

Golden West Telecommunications GM/CEO Denny Law said the RUS will take on a larger financing role for rural broadband deployment through grants and grant/loan combinations. But “it’s critical to promote the efficient and effective use of limited federal resources by ensuring that a new network built by one provider leveraging federal programs will not compete with and undermine the sustainability of an existing network operated by another provider that leveraged other federal resources and is already meeting federal broadband standards,” he said, according to submitted testimony. He echoed the call for the FCC and RUS to coordinate in program administration, as it is “essential to avoid the prospect for two dueling federally-supported networks built in a rural area that cannot sustain either one without the assistance of federal programs.”

Midcontinent Communications Senior Director of Government Relations Justin Forde agreed, and suggested that any portion of the C-band that can be cleared after protecting incumbents should be reallocated for terrestrial uses, including rural fixed wireless. “We are concerned that proposals in the record about a private sale of this valuable spectrum would neglect rural America and exclude operators like Midco,” testified Forde. Any auction of C-band spectrum should be conducted by the FCC, which has the Congressional direction to do so, and the expertise to do so efficiently and equitably, which is key when multiple applicants with various technologies are interested in the spectrum, he explained in his written testimony.

Carol Mattey, now principal of Mattey Consulting, brought a regulator’s perspective to the issue. She spent a combined 22 years working for the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which regulates federal spectrum.

Mattey developed the original Universal Service recommendations for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. As Deputy Chief at the Commission, Mattey implemented those recommendations, transforming the FCC’s USF voice-focused high-cost program into what she calls, “a modern, data-driven program that supports broadband networks only in those areas of our nation where there is no private sector business case.”

She said in written testimony, the agency has moved from a program, “that handed out money with no specific requirements to upgrade network infrastructure,” to one which defines obligations for recipients to deploy broadband by a certain date, in exchange for support.

However, Mattey acknowledged there is much work left to accomplish. Inside Towers reported the Commission’s Form 477 data collection has been described as inadequate, even by some Commissioners. The agency, along with NTIA, is working to fix the maps so they accurately show where broadband exists and does not exist.

There’s no silver bullet to do that quickly, Mattey testified. Any significant changes to existing data collections are going to require time and money. “Some state and local governments are not satisfied with the extent of private sector broadband investment in their communities and are actively taking steps to provide funding above and beyond what is available from the federal government,” according to Mattey. She calls this “a welcome development.”

March 14, 2019      

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