The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) published a Notice of Inquiry this morning, asking the public for advice on how to organize a $600 million “e-Connectivity” pilot program. The new program would provide loans and grants for rural broadband projects, supplementing existing RUS Rural Broadband and Community Connect programs.
The inquiry asks whether the e-Connectivity pilot should encourage partnerships among RUS-funded utilities and other community organizations. Specifically, it asks “how to evaluate the viability of applications that include local utility partnership arrangements, including locally owned telecommunications companies where possible.”
USDA was one of the sponsors of a recent “e-Connectivity listening tour” stop in Faribault, MN, where rural electric and telephone companies described successful broadband partnerships in the Upper Midwest. Speakers at the session discussed how combining electric resources with telephone company broadband network construction experience made the difference in extending fiber-fed high-speed internet to previously unserved homes.
The notice of inquiry also raises the issue of speed versus affordability. Current RUS regulation, like the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), requires that internet providers build networks supporting 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. However, the FCC’s Phase II CAF auction, which began earlier this week, gives significant preference to bids by providers who plan fiber-to-the-home construction at speeds much faster than 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream, which is the FCC’s standard for Section 706 reporting purposes. Satellite and fixed wireless companies participating in the auction have opposed those preferences.
RUS asks whether the e-connectivity pilot should place the same priority on speed or “whether affordability of service should be included in evaluating whether an area already has ‘sufficient access’ … What equates to consumers' costs being so high that they are effectively rendered inaccessible to rural households?”
The Faribault e-Connectivity session also touched on the affordability question. Speakers representing extremely remote sections of Wisconsin and Minnesota where fiber networks are not yet feasible, described how comparatively slower satellite and fixed wireless connections can make a dramatic difference for residents there.
The RUS notice asks about other issues, including:
- Whether there are ways accurately locate rural areas that currently have access to 10/1 Mbps service. RUS currently uses the National Broadband Map and other government sources for that information but seeks privately owned sources as well.
- Beyond minimum benchmark speeds, RUS seeks information about other needed technical performance requirements, such as latency levels. What are the performance levels “required for economic development … especially in peak usage hours, to ensure rural premises have access to coverage similar to that offered in urban areas?”
- What publicly available information will shed light on how broadband access will promote rural prosperity? “This includes projects that benefit rural industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, e-commerce, transportation, health care, and education.”
RUS says it will accept public comments through Sept. 10.