Bridging the Digital Divide

Last month, I logged a five-state, 18-stop, 1,672-mile road trip from Wisconsin to Wyoming to learn firsthand about the connectivity challenges in that part of the country. And this week, I took a three-state, 8-stop, 800-mile drive through rural West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland that highlights how the digital divide is hardly confined to the middle of our nation, but is a real and pressing challenge just a short drive from our nation’s capital.

Consider this fact: more than 70% of the world’s Internet traffic runs through data centers in Northern Virginia, but you can’t even get 4G LTE wireless service on more than 7,700 road miles in rural parts of the same state. And this is unfortunately common nationwide. If you live in rural America, there’s a better than 1-in-4 chance that you lack access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared to a 1-in-50 probability in our cities.

I saw the cost of lack of access at almost every stop during this week’s travels. In Hampshire County, West Virginia, I heard how a resort in the town of Capon Springs that doesn’t have broadband has had trouble attracting guests who prize connectivity. On that same stop, I spoke with the owner of a chocolate store from nearby Kirby who told me that poor or nonexistent Internet access prevents him from serving his customers, maintaining the store’s Facebook page, and growing his business.

But this week’s road trip has left me invigorated, not discouraged. That’s because I also saw firsthand the opportunities that are unlocked when next-generation networks connect rural communities.

For instance, in Wardensville, West Virginia, I heard how broadband has enabled a transcription company that requires massive video downloads to thrive (it’s hired 28 full-time employees and plans to expand to two additional buildings in the near future). And in Staunton, Virginia, I learned how a regional hospital has used connectivity and technology to stabilize stroke patients more quickly and cut the mortality rate from sepsis by 34%. And in Hagerstown, Maryland, I learned how the Washington County school system is incorporating broadband to help children learn, and how the On-Track program (motto: “from cradle to career”) aims to use technology to prepare county residents to enter the digital economy workforce.

With this week’s trip fresh on my mind, I’m pleased to announce that August will be Rural Broadband Month at the FCC. Our agenda for the open meeting on August 3 will feature several items that will help bridge the digital divide.

Leading off will be a Public Notice to initiate the pre-auction process for the Connect America Fund Phase II auction. This auction will award up to $2 billion over the next decade to broadband providers that commit to offer voice and broadband services to fixed locations in unserved high-cost areas in our country. To maximize the value the American people receive for the universal service dollars we spend, this will be the first auction to award ongoing high-cost universal service support through competitive bidding in a multiple-round, reverse auction. With this Public Notice, we are seeking comment on the procedures to be used during this auction. Moving forward now will put us on track to conduct the auction in 2018.

The FCC will also consider taking the next step in implementing Phase II of another key universal service program, the Mobility Fund. In February, the Commission adopted a Mobility Fund framework to allocate up to $4.53 billion over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. The proposed Order on the August agenda would establish a “challenge process” — that is, a process for resolving disputes over whether areas should be eligible for Mobility Fund subsidies. This measure will allow us to proceed to a reverse auction as soon as possible.

It is critical that we use accurate data to determine which areas will be included in that reverse auction. Many have complained to the FCC that the data that we currently collect through our Form 477 isn’t good enough to serve as the basis for that decision. I agree. Therefore, I am proposing to collect new and more granular data that will serve as the starting point in deciding which areas will be included in the Mobility Fund Phase II auction.

Separately, we need to do a better job collecting data through the FCC’s Form 477. It’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Consistent with that dictum, I’m proposing that we improve the data we collect about broadband service in America. Specifically, we will consider changes to the FCC’s Form 477 to improve the value of the data we collect, while also identifying and eliminating unnecessary or overly-burdensome filing requirements.

Increasingly, meeting the connectivity needs of all Americans — no matter where you live — means freeing up spectrum to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband. That’s why, in three weeks, the FCC will vote on starting to explore opportunities for next-generation services — particularly for wireless broadband — in the mid-band spectrum range (3.7 GHz to 24 GHz).

Sticking with wireless, at the August meeting we will also vote on whether to replace a patchwork of service-specific renewal rules for wireless licensees with a consistent set of rules. Uniformity provides certainty and promotes investment. And it’ll help ensure timely construction of wireless networks and intensive, continuous use of spectrum in all areas of the country. We will also tee up whether we should increase build-out obligations for carriers that are seeking to renew wireless licenses so that more of rural America can receive service.

Bridging the digital divide and expanding access to wired and wireless networks will be the central theme of our August meeting, but it won’t be the only focus. We’ll also vote on providing a waiver for a carrier identification requirement for satellite news trucks, and other temporary-fixed satellite earth stations transmitting digital video in order to alleviate the unforeseen, burdensome costs of compliance with respect to old equipment that cannot easily be upgraded. The agenda also includes a Hearing Designation Order and an enforcement item, each of which must remain confidential until the meeting.

In my first remarks to FCC staff as Chairman on January 24, I declared that my highest priority would be making sure every American who wants Internet access can get it. During the almost six months since, we have repeatedly and consistently taken steps in service of this goal. I’m pleased that our August agenda includes yet more measures that will help us bridge the digital divide.