NRTC members responding to the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) inquiry into e-Connectivity concentrated on the issue of which technologies the government should encourage to reach unserved areas. Like past debates over the matter at the FCC, there was disagreement over whether to stick to wireline solutions or support fixed wireless in certain areas.
RUS in July asked for public comment on ways to implement its new $600 million e-Connectivity pilot grant and loan program. Along with the technology question, the agency sought comment on the importance of speed versus affordability when introducing broadband to unserved areas. It also sought comment on how to encourage partnerships among utilities and other community organizations.
“Our experience has shown that fixed wireless technology works well for our consumers,” said Valley Electric Association (VEA) of Nevada. “While wireless may not work in certain terrains throughout the country, our communities are largely free of trees, tall brush and other obstructions, making wireless among the best options for residents in our rural communities.” Because the federal government controls so much of the so much of the land in VEA’s service area, the utility also asked USDA to advocate streamlined federal permitting for broadband facilities.
(Coincidentally, the House of Representatives has scheduled a Thursday vote on the "Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act" [HR 4824], which would provide for some streamlining of USDA and Department of Interior processes.}
In Georgia, Jefferson Energy Cooperative is part of a partnership with Georgia Transmission Corp. to build a fiber backbone in many parts of its service area. “However, the economics are not feasible to extend fiber into the lower-density rural areas outside the small towns. We need sufficient financial support to make broadband service available and affordable to the low-density rural areas,” Jefferson Energy said. The co-op also asked RUS to use affordability as a factor in deciding which projects to support and said it “should view favorably applications that reflect coordination with the community and partnerships with providers that bolster the revenue case as well as broadband adoption.”
While not speaking directly about fixed wireless solutions, the Alabama Rural Electric Association said RUS should not consider mobile coverage sufficient to serve rural areas. “The minimum broadband speed considered sufficient should be wired [25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream], but RUS applicants that can provide higher than 25/3, and specifically symmetrical broadband, should be given priority because upload speeds are especially important in agriculture, business, medicine and education,” AREA said. “Speeds of 10/1 and so-called ‘mobile coverage’ are consistently insufficient.”
The Michigan Electric Cooperative Association (MECA), with members including fiber-to-the-home providers Great Lakes Energy, Homeworks Tri-County Electric Cooperative, and Midwest Energy & Communications, disputed also RUS use of 10/1 as a minimum speed for support when the FCC has set 25/3 as the definition of broadband. (The FCC actually has set two definitions, 10/1 for universal service proposes and 25/3 for Section 706 reports.) MECA claimed that 10/1 is not fast enough to promote economic development in rural areas.
“Additionally, eligible rural areas are defined as having at least 90 percent of the households without sufficient access to broadband. This definition will exclude a significant number of households,” MECA said. “RUS should consider implementing a sliding scale where the 90 percent requirement would qualify for 100 percent funding, and areas with different targets would qualify for lesser funding amounts, as appropriate.”
NRTC telco members tended to agree that wired solutions should take priority. “We feel that wireless is a quick fix for lower speeds and needs constant updating. Trees, weather and overselling have always been issues,” said Wheat State Telephone in Kansas.
The great majority of commenters in the RUS inquiry were individuals, many of whom were living in unserved areas and expressed great desire for broadband access. Few large corporations and industry associations filed. One exception was Microsoft, which again promoted the idea of closing broadband gaps using the TV white spaces (TVWS).
“Microsoft urges the RUS to take a technology-neutral approach in order to attract the widest possible group of participants,” the company said. “Microsoft also urges the RUS to specify that applicants seeking to provide broadband via TVWS spectrum are eligible for funding. Throughput on TVWS devices exceeds the RUS’s 10/1 threshold for service speeds in its existing programs and, in fact, can meet the FCC’s 25/3 service speed threshold for broadband.”
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a veteran of debates over broadband speeds and sufficient service, also filed a few words of advice.
“The pilot program will produce the greatest benefit by focusing specifically on unserved areas-not by limiting eligibility to particular technologies,” he said. "’Sufficient access’ should be determined from a technology-neutral point of view, and there should be no restrictions that would favor or disfavor a certain type of service offering.”