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Encouraging News For Rural Communities in the Farm Bill and FCC’s IP Transition Order

February 28, 2014 ,

February has brought promising news for broadband deployment in rural communities.  On Friday, February 7th, President Obama signed Agriculture Act of 2014 into law.  This Act, more commonly known as the Farm Bill, includes several major reforms to agriculture policy spending and social programs administered by the USDA, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  However, the Farm Bill also includes a provision creating a Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program.

This provision, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), authorizes $50 million ($10 million per fiscal year from 2014 through 2018) for rural telcos that are looking to deploy gigabit broadband networks in their areas.  This pilot program is big news for many reasons.  First of all, this assistance may only be provided to projects that service rural areas.  Additionally, any proposed build out must occur in rural areas that do not presently offer ultra-high speed service.  Furthermore, the law stipulates that the build out of ultra-high speed service must be completed within three years of receiving the initial federal financial assistance.

The other notable development in rural broadband involves the FCC drilling down details in its IP transition trials.  PK has been working to identify the values important to all Americans when it comes to phone service.  Our Five Fundamentals of the PSTN clearly articulated what we believe are the essential values Americans support when it comes to their phones service.  Thankfully, several policymakers agree with our assessment.  As the FCC provided more details about the series of trials on the phone transition, they identified values that align closely with PK’s Five Fundamentals: “public safety, ubiquitous and affordable access, competition, and consumer protection.”

The FCC Order establishes three broad directions for the upcoming trials: (1) voluntary service-based experiments, (2) targeted experiments and cooperative research, and (3) an ongoing data initiative.  As Jodie Griffin explains in an earlier blog post, for part of its second directive regarding experiments and research, the FCC announced more targeted experiments using money from the Connect America Funds to test different technologies in un-served areas.  These tests will help understand what technologies customers and institutions prefer and what models can achieve robust deployment to everyone.  The Center for Rural Strategies has dedicated an issue page on their website explaining the FCC’s Rural Broadband Experiments and includes instructions for how to submit Expressions of Interest for this proposal.

We at PK applaud Sen. Leahy for his work in developing the Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program and its inclusion and passage in the Farm Bill.  Additionally, we commend Chairman Tom Wheeler for the FCC’s directive on the upcoming trials.  Both developments will go a long way toward ensuring rural communities have reliable, competitive communications access.