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Federal Communications Commission



Remarks to Regional Council of Rural Counties

September 27th, 2010 by Admin User

Senior Advisor to the Chairman on Broadband Phoebe Yang delivered these remarks to county commissioners and staff from rural California counties last week in Napa, CA.

 
Good afternoon.   Thank you for that kind introduction, Kim. On behalf of Chairman Julius Genachowski and everyone at the FCC, I bring greetings from Washington.
 
California is a beacon of real leadership in broadband deployment, adoption, and ideas on how to use broadband to promote education, health care, energy efficiency and other national priorities.
 
So, it is always a pleasure to be back in this great state – and especially in the Bay Area – to share ideas and learn from California’s experiences.
 
Overview of Plan
 
Like each of you, I understand that the health of America as a nation is inextricably dependent on the health of rural America. My hometown was an agricultural, railroad town in the rural plains of Arkansas, where farmers made their living raising cotton, rice, and soybeans. Just as my hometown farmers realized in the 1920s and 1930s that electricity was essential for them to compete, Americans today realize that broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity to participate in the modern economy.
 
This recognition – that broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century – led Congress to mandate that the FCC put together our country’s first-ever National Broadband Plan. And I am pleased to share with you some of what we learned in putting together the Plan.
 
When drafting the plan, we identified several gaps in broadband. Specifically, 14-24 million Americans do not have broadband available to them, even if they wanted to subscribe to it. Despite rising mobile and wireless broadband usage through iPads, e-books, smart energy meters, and telemedicine, we have only 50 MHz of spectrum in the pipeline. One-third of Americans do not subscribe to broadband, even if it is available to them, because of cost, digital literacy, and their knowledge of its relevance.
 
American health care providers still cannot take full advantage of e-care and electronic medical records. American schools do not have adequate broadband connectivity or online content available to compete with other nations. Americans do not have a broadband-enabled smart grid that would help build energy independence. And 9 years after 9/11, Americans still do not have a nationwide, interoperable wireless public safety network.
 
The Plan laid out 207 detailed recommendations to address many of these challenges. For example, it recommended that the Executive Branch make available 500 MHz of spectrum by 2020 for mobile broadband. We are pleased that the President endorsed this goal as administration policy, directing all federal government agencies to pursue this in June. It also recommended that we spur innovation and investment in health care, education, and energy. It recommended the creation of a national Digital Literacy Corps to work with states to enable college graduates to go into communities to provide digital literacy training to seniors, immigrants, and other communities.
 
We also made recommendations for ourselves at the FCC. Consider the issue of broadband infrastructure, for which the key challenges are slow pole attachment approval processes and the high costs of securing rights-of-way. The National Broadband Plan recommended streamlining and expediting the pole attachment process and lowering the costs of rights-of-way to boost deployment, especially in rural areas. And the FCC has begun to take action on this recommendation. This can lead to real savings. What we found was that if incumbent telephone companies were charged the same pole rental rates as cable companies, consumers would save $8/month on their broadband bills.
 
FCC’s highly successful E-rate program also needs to be updated to maximize the benefits of broadband in the classroom. The National Broadband Plan recommended that the FCC reform and simplify E-rate.
 
This coming Thursday, the FCC is likely to adopt an order consistent with the National Broadband Plan to reform E-rate to allow schools to lease dark fiber where it is more cost effective; open school premises after-hours to allow citizens in those communities to take advantage of broadband (for job search, training, etc); and experiment with wireless connectivity. We see learning outcomes rise when schools enable students to stay connected to the school while they are at home.
 
And for three years, the FCC has run a pilot program to support rural health care telecommunications needs, including broadband. All of us at the FCC were proud to announce this program is providing $22.1 million in funding to the California Telehealth Network – which will provide broadband connectivity to over 800 health care facilities.
 
We, as a nation, need to do more of what California is already doing in rural areas with the help of the California Emerging Technology Fund, so the National Broadband Plan recommended expanding, reforming, and making permanent our Rural Health Care Program to serve more facilities, and more types of facilities.
 
We also proposed expanding the FCC’s Lifeline and Link-up Programs by allowing subsidies under those programs that support voice service to be used for broadband as well.
 
Universal Service Reform
 
I know there has been much talk lately about the National Broadband Plan’s recommendations regarding what to do with the FCC’s Universal Service Fund – specifically, the High Cost Fund.  
 
One of the main goals of the National Broadband Plan was to maximize broadband deployment in rural areas by reforming the High-Cost Fund. Originally, the High-Cost Fund was designed to ensure that consumers in rural and expensive-to-serve areas would have access to telecommunications services at affordable rates. And indeed, the High-Cost Fund has been successful in ensuring that voice service is available to nearly every U.S. household.
 
But today, broadband is at least as essential – if not more essential – to participating in our economy and democracy as having Plain Old Telephone Service was a generation ago. The High-Cost Fund sorely needs updating to reflect that reality. It also needs updating to reflect other major technology and market changes that enable new ways for consumers to get phone and Internet service.
 
The National Broadband Plan recognized that the High-Cost Fund was designed to universalize voice service, not broadband. It funds the communications platform of the past rather than the present. It pays to upgrade some rural carriers’ infrastructure but not others – creating a digital divide within rural America where some communities can get broadband but others cannot. And it is structured to support multiple providers in serving the same geographic area – taking away money that could be used to build out broadband to other totally unserved rural areas.
 
The National Broadband Plan’s recommendations are designed to ensure that all Americans can get access to broadband, regardless of where they live. It proposes transitioning the High-Cost Fund to a new Connect America Fund to support networks capable of delivering voice and broadband in areas that are uneconomic to serve.
 
We cannot leave rural America behind, so the National Broadband Plan proposes that the Connect America Fund target funding to support broadband with actual download speeds of 4 Mbps. This is one of the world’s highest speed targets today. Most other nations have no universal service speed standard, and most of those who do have set targets of 2 Mbps or lower. A Connect America Fund target of 4 Mbps would enable rural Americans to use common applications like streaming video and voice over IP, at speeds 20 times higher than the FCC’s old standard of 200 kbps.
 
The National Broadband Planalso encourages community broadband. It recommends that Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks.
 
These community broadband deployments are already happening today. For example, in rural Taos, New Mexico, an electric co-op will build affordable fiber-to-the-home service to over 20,000 households, using $64 million in Recovery Act grants and loans. And last week, the city-owned utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee announced that it will offer 1 Gbps to every household it serves by the end of the year.
 
Finally, some rural areas do not have even basic 3G coverage, or fall way below the national average, making mobile broadband impossible. For example, in Alaska only 77% of the population is covered by 3G. In West Virginia, it’s even lower – only 71%. So the National Broadband Plan proposed the Mobility Fund – a one-time fund to promote investment in rural America, supporting build-out of mobile networks in states with 3G coverage significantly below the national average.
                                                              
What You Can Do
 
The National Broadband Plan is a good starting point and framework, but to succeed in making broadband available to rural Californians – and all Americans – we need your help as we begin proceedings to achieve universal broadband.
 
First, we need your help to better understand broadband deployment in rural America. We are meeting with representatives of rural states and carriers, who are sharing with us difficulties of broadband deployment in areas challenging economics. But, we need better data. So we urge you to get involved in the comment process on our website, www.fcc.gov. Under what circumstances are bb providers saying that they will or won’t serve a particular geography? What do your rural constituents say is the reason they want broadband? Are they more concerned about its availability? Its price? Its speed?
 
Second, help us think through what kinds of public interest obligations should apply to broadband providers who receive High-Cost Fund support in rural areas where, in many cases, only one provider exists. What’s a reasonable charge to the consumer to extend broadband to their home in a remote area? What should be our metric for affordability? How can we ensure that providers follow through on commitments to serve an area?
 
Third, if you represent a largely unserved area, reach out to your local phone company or other local service provider and ask them if they have plans to build out to serve your constituents. If not, you may want to consider working with your counterparts at this meeting to explore opportunities to aggregate rural demand and promote deployment. The National Broadband Plan explicitly recommends that federal government and the states should promote demand aggregation to increase availability and decrease costs.
 
I know that Cathy and her team at CSU-Chico have been real leaders in demand aggregation in the rural counties in the northern and northeastern parts of this state, and I look forward to hearing her thoughts today.
 
Closing
 
In closing, broadband is essential to America’s global competitiveness, economic prosperity, and future ability to meet our nation’s needs in health care, education, energy, and other areas. It is no longer a luxury service, and if we leave certain areas of the country behind, we as a nation will suffer.
 
However, making broadband available to all Americans requires the efforts not just of the FCC or the feds, not just of the states, and not just of local communities. It requires us all to work together with industry, consumers, utilities and others. That’s why fora such as this one are so critical to our efforts, and why I so appreciate the opportunity to join you here today.

 



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