Think of government agencies leading the fight for improving broadband access in America, and you’ll probably think of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This agency implemented net neutrality, increased funding for the Connect America Program, and provided broadband subsidies for low-income households. That all said, one of the last groups you’d probably think of is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but there’s reason you should. The USDA recently announced an increase in its ongoing support for expanding broadband availability, pledging money for broadband upgrades in rural areas of seven states. How much and where is it going? On July 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $74.8 million in loans and $11 million in grants to improve rural broadband access. Those funds will be distributed to seven states as follows. 1.Alaska: A $1.4 million grant will go to Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Inc. to provide service to the residents of Hope Point and to ready the network for a future link to an undersea fiber network. 2.Minnesota: Garden Valley Telephone will receive a $12.63 million loan to upgrade its network to fiber. Consolidated Telephone will receive a $12.27 million loan to increase its bandwidth and fiber network. 3.Montana: Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will get $29.95 million in loans to build a fiber network for rural customers. 4.Oklahoma: A $1.5 million grant will go to @Link Services to provide high-speed Internet service to residential and business customers in Seminole County. 5.South Carolina: A $12.38 million loan will allow FTC Communications to modernize its wireless network to the 4G/LTE standard. 6.Virginia: Scott County Telephone Cooperative will receive a $2.1 million grant to build a network with one gig of bandwidth in Dickenson County. 7.Wisconsin: LaValle Telephone Cooperative will get a $7.61 million loan to replace old equipment, install fiber, and allow it to connect to other gigabit networks. Why the USDA? At first glance, the USDA does seem like a strange choice to help advance broadband availability, but the agency does have a history of such aid. It was the USDA that helped bring electricity to many rural customers, and the agency kept up with the times. Between 2009 and the July announcement, the USDA already contributed $77 million to improve rural broadband for 1.5 million customers. And there are two good reasons the USDA remains involved in rural broadband. 1.Agriculture requires wide-open spaces and low population density, which is exactly the opposite of what attracts private ISPs: Minnesota’s Garden Valley has only two households per square mile. 2.Broadband access can help make farming more profitable and productive. It might not be obvious just how high-tech farming and ranching have become, but modern agricultural machinery can communicate wirelessly, just as equipment in any warehouse or factory can. When President Obama noted earlier this year that broadband is a necessity, not a luxury, he wasn’t just talking about streaming video or online shopping. “Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America’s future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a written statement. Why Not the USDA? Although the money may be earmarked for agricultural purposes, it will provide other benefits as well, improving students’ access to learning and consumers’ access to entertainment, commerce, and basic information. For those rural residents who benefit from USDA funding, it doesn’t matter where the funding comes from, so much as where broadband can take them. Photo Credit: Colin/Flikr In January, we wrote about the Connect America program, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiative designed to help spread broadband access across rural America. At the time, the commission had pledged $100 million to support broadband experiments, and received nearly nine times that much in bids from interested companies. So far, Connect America has brought broadband to 1.7 million residents in 45 states, and Puerto Rico. On April 29, the FCC announced a $1.675 billion increase in Connect America Phase II funding. The whole of the FCC’s annual investment in rural broadband and voice networks is $4.5 billion, making the increase a huge one in terms of percentage. Even better is that the FCC says this increase comes without any increase in the Universal Service Fund fees, the source of Connect America funding, on our phone bills. Funding Requirements Based on bidders’ response to earlier Connect America proposals, Internet Service providers (ISPs) will likely offer to accept funding than the FCC can possibly accommodate, and the FCC has specific targets in mind. Most importantly, participating providers will have to deliver 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, an increase in speed of more than 70 percent compared to current speeds in eligible areas. According to the commission, only one in 100 rural Americans currently has that level of speed, compared to one in three Americans nationwide. Companies receiving funding would also have to work within a specific timeframe. To get the money, participating companies will have to provide target speeds to 40 percent of their eligible area by 2017, increasing to 60 percent in 2018 and 100 percent by 2020. The Core of the Problem The FCC realizes that the challenge to bringing broadband to rural areas is that it’s expensive. Laying fiber in rural areas is no more expensive than laying it in a city, but the city has fare more potential customers to reduce the per-consumer cost. Companies building high-speed networks know that consumers won’t be willing to pay enough to create a profit, and so rural areas’ connectivity gets ignored. The new FCC funding will subsidize the per-customer cost of spreading access to high-speed networks. The FCC estimates 10 Mbps service should cost $52.50 per month, and the program funds areas where consumer costs would likely exceed that figure. Population in these areas is 8.5 million, which means that the math is easy: the FCC is willing to pay $200 per customer to expand existing networks into rural areas. That’s actually a fairly significant commitment, representing the equivalent of almost four months of free Internet based on the FCC’s service cost estimate. Where and When An FCC map displays areas eligible for Phase II funding. If you live in an eligible area, know that participating ISPs have until August 27, 2015 to accept funding. Naturally, it will still take time after that to actually expand service areas, so while the FCC is pushing hard to narrow the broadband gap, it’s not something that will happen overnight. If you can’t wait that long, maybe you don’t have to. See which plans are currently available in your area, and maybe you can get a faster connection overnight. [zipfinder] Photo Credit: Neil Howard/Flikr Most of us have momentarily considered packing up our lives and moving out of the city to a little cabin in the mountains or house on the prairie. Assuming you can reconcile the idea of modern technology in your cozy hideaway, the Internet makes it easier than ever to enjoy shopping and entertainment and still get away from the stress of traffic and the city. But one thing you definitely don’t want to get away from is your current high-speed Internet connection. No matter how much you might want to slow life down a bit, no one ever wants to slow down your online activities. A slow Internet connection, which is likely the only kind you’re going to get in that mountain cabin, somehow feels more stressful than not having one. Guess you’re not moving after all. Sure, there are plenty of urban areas with slow Internet connections, too. But the more densely populated an area is, the more likely there’s a private or municipal provider willing to make a fiber or other high-speed network a reality. When your closest neighbors have antlers, though, who’s interested in turbocharging your network connection? They Don’t Just Handle Wardrobe Malfunctions That’s not just a rhetorical question: the FCC has your back. That agency’s Connect America Phase II program is designed to increase the availability of high-speed Internet access in rural areas. Specifically, the FCC is targeting areas that are currently unserved, defined as download speeds below 3 Mbps and 768 Kbps uploads, by unsubsidized providers. The FCC has assigned $100 million towards experiments in providing rural broadband access, and that money is earmarked to accomplish specific goals. Three quarters of that money will go towards networks capable of providing 100 Mbps downloads and 25 Mbps uploads. Another $15 million will support 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds in high-cost areas, and the last $10 million will provide 10/1 down/up speeds to the most costly areas to service. Over 180 bidders have responded to the FCC proposal, with over 600 bids totaling $885 million. So it sounds as if the agency will be able to be selective, and pick the most promising and economical options. Bids have come from both private companies and municipal utilities, and involve wired and wireless options, so each rural community is likely to get the solution best suited to its individual circumstances, rather than adapting one solution to every area. When and Where Is it Coming? An FCC map highlights the areas initially eligible to be part of Phase II funding, so it’s easy to see whether you should start getting excited about this news. The bids include projects in all 50 states, and even Puerto Rico. With that said, there’s not yet a schedule for implementation of any of these new high-speed networks. If you’re sick of your slow rural connection, but you don’t see your neighborhood on that map, don’t fret. Success in initial trials would likely trigger expansion into new areas. Until then, if you haven’t checked lately, you might be surprised at the high-speed plans now available in your area. See what high-speed Internet options you do have right now: [zipfinder] Image by Kenneth Spencer/Flickr
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