Rural Broadband Deployment Ideas: Panelists Offer Some New Thinking

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Next Century Cities, the American Action Forum, and Public Knowledge held a bipartisan discussion about tech policy priorities for the new Congress. 

Policymakers “should focus on interconnection,” rather than simply broadband network construction, said Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, saying that policymakers should consider allowing property owners to build their own connections to a service provider. Several panelists suggested changes to the Universal Service Fund high-cost program, which helps fund rural broadband deployment – but each panelist had a different idea about the changes that should be made. Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon LLC – a consulting group that worked with rural electric co-operatives to win $186 million in broadband funding in the Connect America Fund auction – took aim at the Federal Communications Commission’s periodic increases in broadband speed targets. Instead, he said, the FCC should fund fiber-to-the-home, which he said would mean spending money once, rather than funding multiple incremental upgrades. The current approach, he said, is an example of “soft bigotry of reduced expectations” for rural America. Brent Skorup, senior research fellow at George Mason University, suggested that funding should focus on households rather than carriers and advocated a voucher system, arguing that it would help fund fixed wireless providers and other non-traditional funding recipients. Like Skorup, Feld said the USF should move away from funding carriers. Federal funding, he said, should target infrastructure, not carriers. Once the network is built out, maintenance costs go down significantly, he said, arguing that most carriers should be able to cover costs after a network is built out.

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