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Rural Carriers Unhappy With FCC Move on Mobile Broadband

(Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

As the Trump administration undertakes rural broadband access expansion, stakeholders disagree on ways to reach the target.

At issue is a recent order adopted by the Federal Communications Commission during its August open meeting, which lowered the threshold for federal subsidies to expand mobile broadband from 10 to 5 megabits per second.

There’s a discernible difference between those speeds: Basic web surfing is doable at 5 mbps. At 10 mbps, activities like video streaming become possible. According to a 2017 state of the internet report by technology firm Akamai, average mobile speed in the United States is just over 10 mbps.

But rural areas have languished due to the low returns on investment for providers building the necessary infrastructure where there aren’t a lot of rate payers. The FCC plans to auction off the $4.53 billion in its mobility fund — MF-II — over the next ten years for companies to offer service in these high-cost areas.

In changing the target speeds for determining eligible areas, the FCC cited a petition by T-Mobile USA Inc., which argued that lowering the target speed to 5 mbps would help channel the subsidies to areas where there isn’t any of the necessary infrastructure, and are considered “unserved.”

“Given that carriers are not hitting a 10 Mbps download standard consistently nationwide, even in relatively urbanized areas, it would be overly burdensome to expect carriers to consistently meet such a standard in the rural and other hard-to-serve areas,” T-Mobile’s petition reads. “As a consequence of an overly aggressive 10 Mbps throughput requirement … the Commission’s funding budget will yield significantly less new coverage than otherwise could be possible.”

Rural wireless carriers say changing the speed target undermines work they’ve already done to deliver service. And they point to an earlier FCC assessment, under previous leadership, about the insufficiency of 5 mbps for delivery of services to rural Americans. Rural wireless carriers argue the change could threaten existing broadband service in “underserved” areas.

“In the absence of MFII funds, currently supported carriers may be forced to turn off service on certain towers,” the Rural Wireless Association wrote in comments to the FCC.

Quoting from the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, RWA noted that the new speed target doesn’t support applications for video calls and streaming media that have become “critical in rural America, as they support remote work sites, telework applications, telemedicine and rural learning programs.”

The rural carriers aren’t giving up.

“The FCC is willing to pay lip service to ensuring that rural areas are served, but when it comes down to adopting policies, they’ve not always put their money where their mouth is,” Robert Silverman, an attorney with Bennet & Bennet PLLC who serves as counsel for telecommunications carriers, said in a Thursday phone interview. “Hopefully there will be continued improvements as rural carriers stay engaged with commissioners and staff.”

The FCC’s vote to adopt the mobility order with the change was unanimous. But in a notice of inquiry on the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans — something the commission is responsible for making annual reports on — Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed concern over what changing the target speed on the mobile fund auction portends for setting a broadband speed standard.

“We seek comment on whether to deem an area as ‘served’ if mobile or fixed service is available,” she wrote in a concurring statement. “I am extremely skeptical of this line of inquiry. Consumers who are mobile only often find themselves in such a position, not by choice but because they cannot afford a fixed connection. I have heard from too many consumers who can only afford a mobile connection, and even then they have to drop service in the middle of the month because they cannot afford to pay for more data.”