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FCC: Rural Broadband Still Needs Government Push

The FCC has concluded that rural broadband deployment still needs some help from government, including "major Universal Service Fund reform."

That came in a congressionally mandated update to the requirement in the 2008 Farm Bill that the commission and the Department of Agriculture update a 2009 report outlining their rural broadband strategy.

The report concludes that while "a number of private- and public-sector initiatives are underway," and significant progress has been made, "additional efforts and new policies -- including major universal service policy reform -- are still required to ensure that rural America fully shares in the benefits of the emerging broadband economy." The report did not include mobile broadband.

The conclusion is not a big surprise.

The FCC has already said that broadband, generally, is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner, concluding last month for the second time in its annual 706 report on broadband deployment that that was the case and making the point that the 26 million people without broadband were primarily in rural communities.

The commission said that progress had been made, and included not only Comcast's low-cost broadband pledge -- part of the NBCU deal conditions -- but also its December 2010 vote to impose network neutrality conditions, saying those rules will "will provide greater clarity and certainty regarding the continued freedom and openness of the Internet, and support the marketplace's cycle of investment and innovation, driving increased investment in broadband infrastructure."

The commission also cited its moves to require data roaming, lower pole-attachment fees, ease rights of way, and make tower citing easier as progress toward that rural build-out, as well as broadband stimulus programs administered by the Agriculture Department and Commerce.

But the bottom line was that "bringing broadband to rural and insular areas of the country is a task of significant cost and complexity that will require continuation of each of these efforts as well as new initiatives to address any additional obstacles that come to light," the report concluded.

The FCC said it would try to look first at market-driven initiatives to spur deployment and adoption "where appropriate," but would also need to continue to remove barriers to both, which it said in the 706 report include price and speed. It also said mobile broadband, which was not included in the report due to a lack of granular data, would be another way of bridging what it says are still "significant" deployment and adoption gaps." It put in another plug for freeing up spectrum from broadcasters and others, saying that it should increase access to wireless broadband in rural areas.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association was still reviewing the report at press time.