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In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Connect America Fund (CAF) to provide funding from existing sources for broadband infrastructure deployment in rural areas. The goal of the CAF program was to connect as many as 7 million un-served rural Americans to broadband by 2017 and all 19 million un-served residents by 2020.

More than two years later, the CAF plan has yet to be fully finalized. Now the FCC is moving toward completion of a larger and more permanent reform, called CAF Phase II.

According to the FCC, approximately 86% of the almost 19 million Americans who cannot access broadband service are located in rural areas. CAF dollars are meant to shrink this number and initiate the build-out necessary to serve every rural community, family, and business.

Without significant changes, however, the CAF Phase II program could create a new digital divide with a significant population of “Internet have-nots.”

Issues of Concern

As part of the Phase II program, the FCC mandated a more than doubling of download speeds, from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. At One Country Connected, we agree faster Internet speeds are crucial in terms of meeting the rapidly evolving needs of consumers. However, we also believe this mandate will require commensurate changes in other parts of the program.

The FCC program currently abandons large parts of rural America to false or overstated claims of broadband coverage by basing cable operator coverage on Census blocks and treating inadequate, unlicensed fixed wireless Internet service (WISPs) as a reasonable surrogate for facilities-based fiber broadband.

Fixed wireless is a supportive technology—not infrastructure. Currently, the FCC incorrectly assumes WISP service can be obtained throughout an entire area despite limited capacity and line-of-sight and interference issues. Additionally, current regulations do no provide for independent verification of provider broadband coverage claims within a designated area.

The Way Forward

As the FCC finalizes its CAF Phase II rules, we strongly believe that fiber broadband is the best way to ensure reliable, robust (10 Mbps) Internet service over the long term. The Connect America Fund supports the following policies to reach this goal:

  • Extend the planned funding period to 10 years to build a higher-capacity network.
  • Establish reasonable network build-out parameters and allow providers to refund support for locations that are especially remote and costly.
  • Allow funds to be used to reach all un-served high-cost households, including those in the same Census block as a household that does have access to 10 Mbps broadband.
  • Require cable and WISP service claims to be verified through a robust protocol.

CAF funds are essential to our nation’s economic competitiveness and a fundamental requirement for rural communities to participate in commerce, expand opportunities, and overcome the challenges of a rapidly changing communications environment.

We will continue to work with the FCC to make sure its final CAF policies reflect our concerns and recommendations to provide necessary broadband access to rural Americans.