Is U.S. Broadband Working? The Administration Is Working On It

This week, the Administration announced progress since January 2015 and new steps in getting access to fast and affordable broadband in more communities around the country

Back in January we reported on a series of speeches by President Barack Obama in the run up to the State of the Union address. In those speeches, the President indicated that the Internet would play a central role in his 2015 policies. This week, the Administration offered an update on its progress since January and outlined the next steps in “promoting investment and rewarding competition.” Although the Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality order is still the headliner-grabber, this week we review the Administration’s most recent announcements.

[One quick aside: we don’t mean to ignore the importance of the recent net neutrality activity. USTelecom -- a group that includes some of the nation's largest Internet providers -- and Alamo Broadband, a small, Texas-based Internet provider, launched the first legal challenges to the new rules. USTelecom’s suit was filed in Washington (DC), while Alamo Broadband sued the FCC in New Orleans. In addition, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has faced a long gauntlet of Congressional oversight hearings that focused much of their attention on the FCC’s decision and the process it used to reach it. All the news from those hearings can be found here, here, here, here, here, and (gasp, gasp) here.]

I. An Updated National Broadband Map

The National Broadband Map gets its last update from the NTIA

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) directed the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to develop and maintain a comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service from both commercial and public providers. The ARRA actually allowed implementation of the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 which authorized (but didn't fund) the NTIA to make competitive grants to develop and implement statewide initiatives to identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each state.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act also directed the FCC to:

  • compile a list of geographical areas that are not served by any provider of advanced telecommunications capability (high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications);
  • conduct and make public periodic surveys of consumers in urban, suburban, and rural areas in the large business, small business, and residential consumer markets to evaluate the national characteristics of broadband service capability; and
  • provide eligible entities electronic access to aggregate data (subject to exception) collected by the FCC from broadband service providers.

The broadband map is part of the NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative, created to encourage economic growth by facilitating the integration of broadband and information technology into state and local economies. Through the State Broadband Initiative, NTIA has awarded a total of $293 million to 56 grantees, one each from the 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia, or their designees. Grantees used this funding to support the efficient and creative use of broadband technology to better compete in the digital economy. These state-created efforts vary depending on local needs but include programs to assist small businesses and community institutions in using technology more effectively, research to investigate barriers to broadband adoption, innovative applications that increase access to government services and information, and state and local task forces to expand broadband access and adoption.

For the last five years, each state, territory and the District of Columbia has collected the broadband availability data that powers the National Broadband Map. Every six months, states have submitted to NTIA data compiled from information gathered from broadband providers, public and commercial data, consumers and local governments. This week, the NTIA released updated broadband map data, current as of June 30, 2014.

Key findings include:

  • At lower speeds, Internet access is widely available across both rural and urban areas. The latest data shows that 99 percent of the country has access to advertised broadband speeds at 10 megabits per second (Mbps) through either wired or wireless services, and 93 percent have access to this speed through wired service alone.
  • Broadband speeds continue to increase. The rate at which speeds are increasing, however, is slower at every national speed threshold that NTIA tracks.
  • Nearly 85 percent of the country has access to wired broadband at a speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, which is the FCC’s new benchmark level for broadband speeds. Cable provides 82.69 percent of the U.S. population with speeds of 25 Mbps or more, while fiber to the premises serves about one in four Americans (24.20 percent) at that speed.
  • However, there is still a big gap between urban and rural areas when it comes to access to broadband at 25 Mbps. The latest data finds that only 55 percent of those in rural communities, and 32 percent of tribal lands have access to broadband at 25 Mbps compared with 94 percent of urban areas.

While releasing the latest data, NTIA's Anne Neville, the Director of the State Broadband Initiative (SBI), noted that the initiative is coming to a close. This week’s data is the last set of data that states will collect under this program. NTIA is transitioning the broadband map to the FCC, which will collect data as part of its 477 data collection programs.

In addition to collecting broadband data, SBI grantees have created more than 200 local broadband planning teams, which brought together diverse stakeholders to assess resources, identify gaps and plan their broadband future. Many states convened state broadband councils that helped chart a path for how their state will approach the digital economy. Grantees have worked with schools, non-profit organizations, libraries and local governments -- providing digital literacy training, on-site technical support and technology planning services. And they also have played a key role in helping to redefine online government services.

Many states have said they plan to continue collecting or analyzing data, and will continue to maintain their own broadband maps. A majority of states also will continue to employ a broadband coordinator or are integrating that work into other important planning activities. NTIA will continue to support the work of these groups by facilitating a State Broadband Leaders Network, enabling state broadband coordinators to continue sharing information with each other and leveraging their knowledge to expand broadband in their states.

II. The U.S. Reaches President Obama’s Mobile Broadband Goal

High-speed wireless services available around the country

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a National Wireless Initiative to make available high-speed wireless services to at least 98 percent of Americans by 2016. Based on the latest National Broadband Map data, the Administration announced that -- through significant private investment – the U.S. reached that goal nearly two years ahead of schedule.

The White House touted the policies that have helped drive progress toward this milestone, and will continue to promote robust investment in wireless broadband connectivity, including:

  • Initiating the Most Successful Mobile Spectrum Auction in American History. The highest-grossing auction of mobile spectrum raised more than $41 billion. Freeing up this spectrum for private investment will lead to better mobile connectivity while funding important priorities like a first-responders network and reduction of the deficit. This success will keep the momentum going for the FCC’s upcoming “incentive auction” of television broadcast spectrum slated for early 2016.
  • Continuing to Free Up Wireless Spectrum. Concerted government efforts to successfully free up wireless spectrum previously held by government agencies have, to date, formally recommended or otherwise identified 335 Mhz of Federal and non-Federal spectrum for potential reallocation.
  • Expanding Access to Broadband in Rural and Underserved Areas. Over $7 billion of ARRA funding went to increasing broadband connectivity, including to under-served areas, which is the foundation of high-speed wireless service. In all, these efforts have installed or upgraded over 174,000 miles of high-speed broadband infrastructure. In addition, the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) has invested over $25 billion since 2008 to encourage investment in high-cost and rural broadband, both fixed and mobile.

III. The Broadband Opportunity Council

President Obama creates the Broadband Opportunity Council to encourage broadband investment and adoption

While in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in January, President Obama announced he would establish a new Broadband Opportunity Council singularly focused on increasing broadband investment and adoption. On March 23, the President signed a new Presidential Memorandum, officially creating the council, co-chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, and including over twenty-five different government agencies and components, all united around clear policy objectives to:

  • Engage with industry and other stakeholders to understand ways the government can better support the needs of communities seeking broadband investment;
  • Identify regulatory barriers unduly impeding broadband deployment or competition;
  • Survey and report back on existing programs that currently support or could be modified to support broadband competition, deployment or adoption; and
  • Take all necessary actions to remove these barriers and re-align existing programs to increase broadband competition, deployment, and adoption.

The Council will report back to the President, within 150 days, with the steps each agency will take to advance these goals, including specific regulatory actions or budget proposals.

“This is a good day for innovation and a good day for expanded opportunity to connect U.S. businesses, job-seekers, farmers, ranchers and producers throughout the United States to the rest of the world,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after the announcement.

“Broadband access is a critical component of the infrastructure America needs to compete in the 21st century global economy,” said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. “We look forward to working with our federal partners, industry, and other stakeholders to make it easier for communities across the country to have easy access to fast, affordable broadband technology.” Secretary Pritzker designated Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling to serve as Commerce’s representative on the Broadband Opportunity Council.

In a statement this week, Strickling wrote, “A key mandate of the new council will be to survey government agencies to create a comprehensive inventory of federal programs, including federal funding options, that are currently available to support broadband or could be modified to do so. The council will also examine existing government policies and regulations, including permitting requirements and rights-of-way restrictions, to recommend changes to remove barriers to investment. In addition, the council will solicit input from local officials, industry leaders and other stakeholders on ways that the federal government can incentivize broadband investment, drive competition and remove regulatory and policy barriers at the community level.”

“At NTIA, we have seen firsthand how essential broadband is to schools, public safety, health care, businesses and most other sectors of society,” said Assistant Secretary Strickling. “The interagency effort the council is undertaking will help marshal the resources of multiple federal agencies to promote opportunities to advance broadband deployment and adoption across the country.”

IV. Supporting Community Broadband

The White House will host the Community Broadband Summit

According to Akamai’s latest State of the Internet report, many of the efforts to increase connection speeds are being taken at a local/municipal level. The White House touted the FCC’s decision last month to lift restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina that were holding back communities from setting up municipal networks like successful examples in Chattanooga, TN, and Wilson, NC, where those networks affordably deliver broadband speeds around 100 times the national average. “This step forward helped unserved and under-served communities, many of whom have no way to stay economically competitive absent a municipal provider of broadband,” a White House fact sheet noted.

To carry forward the momentum, help communities leaders learn from one another, and report out the progress of our broadband initiatives, the White House, in June 2015, will host the Community Broadband Summit.

Blair Levin, who spearheaded the FCC's efforts to write the 2010 National Broadband Plan and who has been working to bring private industry and public officials together to build high-speed broadband networks, celebrated the Administration’s efforts. "Over the last several years, dozens of cities have accelerated the deployment of world-leading broadband networks by reforming local policies that add unnecessary costs to construction," he said. "It's great, as called for in the National Broadband Plan, that federal agencies are joining the movement to reform policies to help American communities have the best broadband in the world."

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also applauded Obama's efforts. "The Administration and I share a commitment to expanding the availability of broadband in communities around the country, and the president's actions today are an important step forward," he said in a statement.

Building on expertise gained from overseeing the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funded through the ARRA, the NTIA’s BroadbandUSA offers online and in-person technical assistance to communities; hosts regional workshops around the country; and publishes guides and tools that provide communities with proven solutions to address problems in broadband infrastructure planning, financing, construction, and operations across many types of business models. Through the BroadbandUSA program, the Department of Commerce has followed through on its promise to support more communities seeking to learn from the experts on how to increase broadband investment and competition — including through municipal broadband. Since January, the Commerce Department has provided ongoing one-on-one advice to communities across the U.S. including in Ohio, Kansas, Florida, California, and West Virginia; organized a regional summit in Jackson, Mississippi; and held a national webinar to introduce BroadbandUSA and present the new Guide to Public-Private Partnerships for Broadband Investment.

V. Improving Rural Broadband

$35 million for rural broadband projects

Time and again, studies show that affordable broadband offers increased economic opportunities in rural areas. This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA funded three rural telecommunications infrastructure projects that will improve broadband service in portions of rural Arkansas, Iowa and New Mexico. The projects aim to deliver enhanced services to help attract and grow businesses, as well as to improve educational and health care services.

  • Southwest Arkansas Telephone will receive a $25 million loan to upgrade portions of a fiber network and convert the remaining portions of a copper system to fiber to improve service for subscribers.
  • In New Mexico, Mescalero Apache Telecom will receive a $5.4 million loan to upgrade portions of its system and provide fiber service to approximately 50 percent of its territory. This is the first loan that USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has made under the Substantially Underserved Trust Area provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill. These provisions amended the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to make funding available to areas that historically have had difficulty receiving federal assistance. RUS has held a series of outreach workshops around the country in the past year to help Tribal communities access RUS broadband programs.
  • Iowa's Minburn Communications has been selected to receive a $4.7 million loan to upgrade its copper network to fiber, and to provide subscribers with voice, broadband and video service.

Since 2009, USDA investments in broadband include more than 500 projects for a total investment of $5.88 billion through the Farm Bill broadband program, Title II Infrastructure, Community Connect and Recovery Act programs. In 2014, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service awarded $228 million to improve telecommunications service for 83,000 rural customers. But perhaps the bigger news is that the USDA will reopen, later this year, a revamped broadband loan program, which will offer financing to eligible rural carriers that invest in bringing high-speed broadband to unserved and under-served rural areas.

VI. A Public Safety Broadband Network

A second phase of FirstNet grant funding

The NTIA announced this week that it will be releasing the second phase of previously-awarded grant funding for states and territories to begin collecting data necessary to plan for the nationwide public safety broadband network being developed by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 authorized the creation of FirstNet, which is developing a nationwide network to enable first responders to better communicate and save lives. The law also directed NTIA to develop a grant program, the State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP), to assist states and territories in planning, education and outreach as they consult with FirstNet on the deployment of the broadband network.

In 2013, NTIA awarded grants to 54 states and territories. The first phase of funding, totaling about $58 million, has helped states conduct outreach with public safety and state and local officials to determine their needs, gaps and priorities for public safety wireless broadband and to prepare for formal consultations with FirstNet, which is an independent authority within NTIA.

This second phase of SLIGP funding ($58 million) will allow states to collect data identifying and prioritizing where public safety broadband coverage is needed, identifying potential users and their capacity needs, and detailing current providers and procurement mechanisms.

All in all, the Administration’s announcements demonstrate a lot of action over the last two months – and in the months ahead. The efforts are warranted. Although the new NTIA data indicates that nearly 85 percent of the country has access to wired broadband, it also indicates a big gap between urban and rural areas: well over 90 percent of urban areas have access to broadband, but nearly one-half of rural areas and two-thirds of tribal areas have no access. And these will be the hardest areas to bring broadband to. Only through sustained effort will we become a truly connected nation.

By Kevin Taglang.