An Office of Rural Broadband: We’ve Heard This Before

Benton Foundation

Monday, March 18, 2019

Digital Beat

An Office of Rural Broadband:

We’ve Heard This Before

Dr. Christopher Ali

On February 12, 2019 Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced S.454 – The Office of Rural Broadband Act in the Senate. Co-sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Hoeven (R-ND) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the bill would establish an Office of Rural Broadband in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The bill has now been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Senator Cramer’s Office of Rural Broadband Act is the latest effort to coordinate rural broadband planning and policy. There are myriad agencies and departments with a hand in rural broadband – the FCC, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) chief among them. Coordination – or lack thereof – has been one of the major hurdles in broadband deployment and in crafting a national rural broadband strategy more generally.

Agency coordination has been a key recommendation in a decade of reports on rural broadband. In this way, S.454 is simply reminding us of a long-standing unresolved issue. In 2009, for instance, the primary recommendation of the FCC’s Rural Broadband Report was increased coordination among federal agencies, tribal, state and local governments, community groups and individuals. The Congressional Research Service marshaled similar language in 2012:

Given that the RUS and [the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF)] broadband programs share the goal of deploying broadband to rural America, Congress may also wish to assess how these two programs can best fit together. Are they effectively targeted towards providing broadband to the most unserved areas of the nation, while at the same time minimizing adverse impacts on private incumbent providers? Are they the most cost-effective way for Congress to fund rural broadband development? To what extent are the two programs complementary, and to what extent do the two programs overlap? And finally, how will changes made to the USF program affect the viability of broadband loans made under the RUS programs?

Around that same time, the FCC and RUS signed a memorandum of understanding that promised data sharing and coordination on issues related to rural broadband. These promises have gone unfulfilled.

In 2015, the Obama administration formed the Broadband Opportunity Council “to produce specific recommendations to increase broadband deployment, competition and adoption through executive actions within the scope of existing Agency programs, missions and budgets.” Chaired jointly by the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, the council’s report strongly recommended collaboration and coordination:

Agencies should expand interagency coordination to minimize redundancy and remove regulatory barriers and should continue to collaborate to meet the goals established for the Council. Additionally, where appropriate, Council members should increase collaboration and coordination with State, Local and Tribal governments to support their initiatives to expand broadband access and adoption. 

Reports issued by the Trump administration have echoed these calls, including statements from the Interagency Task Force on Rural Prosperity and, in February 2019, the American Broadband Initiative, which noted that “coordination [between FCC and USDA] is critical to ensure that investments are not only complementary but also that they maximize the impact of limited Federal funds.” In fact, coordination is mentioned 45 times in the new Trump administration report!

S.454 – The Office of Rural Broadband Act

The Office of Rural Broadband would coordinate efforts of the FCC, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), NTIA, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), and other agencies. The Office would also author reports on rural broadband deployment, act as a go-between for rural broadband stakeholders, and document efforts to improve broadband mapping.[i] The bill stops short, however, of giving the Office any regulatory, oversight, or leadership responsibilities. In other words, the Office of Rural Broadband would be an Office without authority.

S. 454 is not unique among calls for a rural broadband office. In 2017, Congress saw competing bills to establish an Office of Rural Broadband: S.2959 – the precursor to S.454 - introduced in the Senate by John Hoeven (R-ND), proposed an Office of Rural Broadband at the FCC. In the House, H.R. 800 – the New Deal Rural Broadband Act of 2017, introduced by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), sought to establish an Office of Rural Broadband and the position of Under Secretary for Rural Broadband at USDA. These were amongst 20 rural broadband bills introduced during the last Congress. Just one, HR 4881 – the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, was voted on.

What Do We Mean By ‘Rural’?

In addition to vague wording and ambiguous responsibilities for the proposed Office, the legislation also reinforces another long-standing dilemma in rural development policy: the definition of “rural” itself.

The bill uses the definition of rural found in 47 CFR §54.505(b)(3). 47 CFR is devoted to telecommunications, and section 54.505 regards universal service support for schools and libraries. Here, “rural” is defined as an urbanized area or urban cluster with a population less than 25,000 “as determined by the most recent rural-urban classification by the Bureau of the Census.” This is the working definition of rural for USAC, though it bears noting that it is not the working definition of rural for the RUS.

“Rural” is a contentious issue in American regulation, so much so that the 2008 Farm Bill ordered USDA to evaluate the various definitions of the term used within the department. USDA’s report mapped well over 30 different iterations of the word. The report ultimately concluded that a universal understanding of “rural” should be adopted. USDA furthermore recommended that the standard definition be a community under 50,000 people. Coincidentally, or not, this is the definition employed in the 2008 Farm Bill.

A universal definition was never adopted, and, as a result, the smorgasbord of definitions continues to pervade regulatory discourse both at USDA and across federal and state agencies and departments. A stronger mandate for the Office of Rural Broadband would be to standardize the definition of rural within telecommunications policy and regulation as a component of its primary mission of coordination and inter-agency cooperation.  This would satisfy the plea for standardization made in in the 2009 Rural Broadband Report:

Federal agencies involved in rural broadband initiatives should consider coordinating key terminology, such as the term “rural” across their programs, consistent with their legislative mandates.

We Need a Dog with Bark and Bite

Bills like S.454 tackle only one part of our rural broadband problem, be it coordination (S.454), agriculture (HR 4881), funding (HR 4232), or research (HR 4876). We need a national rural broadband plan to bring all of these responsibilities together under the auspices of one agency or department.

A stronger iteration of S.454 would stipulate multiple roles and responsibilities:

  1. Create an Office of Rural Broadband,
  2. Order this Office to craft a national rural broadband plan,
  3. Imbue this Office with actual regulatory and oversight powers over rural broadband, and not just with an order of coordination, and
  4. Require this Office to research and rollout a standard definition of “rural” for all agencies responsible for telecommunications policy and regulation.

Other, responsibilities that could be added to this Office include:

  1. Coordinate and lead all federal rural broadband activities,
  2. Revise the national broadband map and broadband deployment data collection, and
  3. Draft recommendations to democratize the Universal Service Fund

As I recently wrote for the New York Times, this Office of Rural Broadband is best placed inside the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of USDA, rather than the Federal Communications Commission, as S.454 proposes. RUS has a mandate to champion rural America, and has offices and divisions in every state. RUS understands the needs of rural communities better than any federal department or agency. Placing the Office of Rural Broadband here, rather than at the FCC, would also recall an earlier time in our nation’s history when we trusted USDA to connect our rural communities with electricity and telephony through the Rural Electrification Administration, the precursor to RUS.

What S.454, its forerunners, and companion pieces of proposed legislation, demonstrate is not a lack of drive to solve the problem, but rather the political will to follow through. Legislation is proposed and funding allocated, but a centralized strategy to shepherd these initiatives through to fruition remains vexingly absent. The Office of Rural Broadband Act has the potential to do this, but for it to work, we need to give this dog both bark and bite.


[i] Particularly welcome given the difficulties both the FCC and NTIA have experienced in managing the National Broadband Map.

Christopher Ali is a Benton Faculty Research Fellow and Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia. During his two-year Benton Faculty Research Fellowship, Ali will continue work on his new book project, Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Interventions in Broadband Policy, which investigates the relationship between farming communities, communication technologies, and communication policy in the United States.


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By Christopher Ali.