First, Interstate Highways, Now Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission chair didn't provide a plan for bringing broadband to rural America, but he did point to a way.

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The United States built the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system and, given that history, the country can provide every citizen with high speed Internet access. Or so says the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in a report entitled “Bringing Broadband to Rural America.” 

The author of the late-May report is Michael J. Copps. He is the acting chair of the FCC. (The Senate has yet to act on President Obama’s choice, Julius Genachowski.) But the 2008 Farm Bill required the FCC to submit a report “describing a comprehensive rural broadband strategy” by May 22 of this year. So Copps obliged, with an acknowledgement that rural areas have been “left behind” in the spread of broadband and a full-throated call for government action — what one writer called a “Rooseveltian call to arms.” 

That doesn’t mean the 77-page report provides a “comprehensive broadband strategy,” because it doesn’t. (A final broadband plan will be delivered to Congress by February 17, 2010.) The report does, however, acknowledge the still-large deficit in rural broadband coverage (even though Copps states that nobody knows who in rural America has broadband access and who doesn’t). And in the ongoing discussion about who is best suited to provide rural broadband — the telcos? local government? — Copps gives his support and encouragement to government.

“Relying on market forces alone will not bring robust and affordable broadband services to all parts of rural America,” he writes. “Therefore, all levels of government should explore ways to help overcome the high costs of rural broadband deployment.”

As Blandin on Broadband makes clear, the report is long and “not a lot of it is new.”  Copps does begin with a simple statement that, if accepted, requires a national response:

“For many Americans, a world without broadband is unimaginable. For them, broadband Internet access has transformed the way they live their lives. But we have not succeeded in bringing broadband to everyone. For years, large parts of rural America have languished on the sidelines of the digital revolution. Home to the homesteaders, pioneers, and the rich and diverse Native American cultures that contribute so much to our national identity, rural America has for most of our history been deemed too remote, too sparsely populated, or too inaccessible to be fully connected with our nation’s infrastructures.”

Copps realizes that it won’t be easy to spread broadband throughout rural America. “But as long as a grade-school child living on a farm cannot research a science project, or a high school student living on a remote Indian reservation cannot submit a college application, or an entrepreneur in a rural hamlet cannot order spare parts, or a local law enforcement officer cannot download pictures of a missing child without traveling to a city or town that has broadband Internet access, we cannot turn back from these challenges.”

Commonwealth of Virginia
This is one of the latest state efforts to map the location of broadband. Here, dark red shows where both fixed and mobile broadband are available. Pink shows areas where fixed broadband is available. Blue denotes areas with mobile broadband only. White areas have no service at all. For more information, go here.

Aside from the lofty calls for renewal, however, Copps makes clear that nobody really knows how much work needs to be done. “Our efforts to bring robust and affordable broadband to rural America begin with a simple question: what is the current state of broadband in rural America?” Copps writes. “We would like to answer this question definitively, and detail where broadband facilities are deployed, their speeds, and the number of broadband subscribers throughout rural America. Regrettably, we cannot.” Nobody knows who has access to broadband and who doesn’t. (Various maps are periodically produced, showing where broadband is available and where it is missing, such as the one above of Virginia. But all this information is suspect.)

Weirton, Virginia.

What that leaves proponents of rural broadband is anecdote and somewhat vague calls for action. Copps’s report has both. He writes about Weirton, the site of a former cotton plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Weirton didn’t have the funds to tap into an Internet backbone just a few miles away. It took intervention — an “active federal role” — to provide Weirton with broadband connections.

That’s not unusual, Copps contends. The nation’s history is marked by government-led efforts to build canals, complete a transcontinental railroad and construct an interstate highway system. “From the country’s earliest days, building the nation’s infrastructure has required federal resources and leadership, and this federal role continues,” according to Copps.

The FCC’s report may not be specific, but it does paint a big picture. Copps describes the will it took to electrify rural communities and to build the web of interstate highways. He writes that it will take the same kind of effort to extend broadband to those who now don’t have it. He also compares the U.S. program to those in other countries, providing some international benchmarks to a normally inward looking country.

Copps also lays out certain principles. For instance, the network created with public money should be open. “‘Openness’ is not just another bromide,” he writes, “but a principle we must tenaciously preserve.”

Where to now? On that, the Copps report is silent. Already, an Inspector General’s report issued in March has found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary broadband program continues to fund Internet projects in communities where broadband is already available. The Inspector General found that, instead of concentrating on unserved rural areas, the Rural Utility Service has “continued to make loans to providers in areas with pre-existing service, sometimes in close proximity to large urban areas.” 

Copps compared the effort needed to bring broadband to all rural areas to other large national undertakings, such as the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Here the cross-country railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869.
Copps will not likely not be at the FCC when the final broadband plan is sent to Congress next February. The FCC chair will be Julius Genachowski, and it is not clear now if he will have Copps’s same kind of New Deal fervor. Matthew Lasar, in Ars Technica, describes Genachowski as more corporate-minded than Copps. 

“Infrastructure deployment is something Americans do well; it plays to our national strengths,” Copps writes in his report’s conclusion. “We have built out canals, bridges, electricity, telephone service, roads, and highways. Now, with much history to learn from and with an array of technological resources at our disposal, we can and will do it again.”

 

 

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