FCC Urged to Subsidize Broadband Access In Rural Areas

In a move aimed at making high-speed Internet service more widely available, a government advisory board is urging the Federal Communications Commission in a report to devote $300 million to subsidizing broadband access in rural areas.

The report marks the first time the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, which oversees a $7 billion fund, is urging the FCC to use some of that money to improve broadband availability.

"In our view, Americans have made a clear judgment, consistent with the rest of the developed world, that broadband Internet access is an important component of modern life," the report states.

But the report has drawn a lukewarm reception from some consumer advocates who say they are pleased that the government wants to improve broadband availability, but that far more than $300 million is needed.

"It's a move in the right direction, but the amount of money they set aside is not going to do the trick," says Ben Scott, policy director of the advocacy group Free Press.



FCC Commissioner Michael Copps had a similar reaction. "Instead of bold recommendations to implement our historic decision, the Joint Board only suggests that $300 million of federal dollars be dedicated to this challenge," he said in a statement attached to the report. "That's like fighting a bear with a fly swatter."

As of September, only about 33% of rural homes had broadband connections at home, compared to 50% of homes in non-rural areas, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At least some of that difference is due to the lack of broadband services, says John Horrigan, an associate director of research for Pew. "The gap is real and infrastructure issues contribute to it," he says.

The joint board also called for a complete census to determine which areas lack broadband access. Currently, the FCC reports availability by ZIP code, with the result that if even one household within a ZIP code has a broadband connection, the FCC reports that the area has broadband access.

But many observers, including the advisory panel, say that more precise data is needed. "Effective use of federal funds for broadband will require a detailed knowledge of the areas in which effective terrestrial broadband service is unavailable," states the report. "Broadband availability can vary on a street-by-street basis, sometimes on a house-by-house basis."

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