FCC Chair’s Digital Empowerment Agenda – does it empower rural areas?

Yesterday I wrote about new FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s actions since taking the helm at the FCC. Generally I don’t go into detail about federal broadband policy because it’s all I can do to keep up with Minnesota policies and progress! But changes at the FCC will have an impact on rural broadband in Minnesota so I think it’s worth talking about it.

Before he became Chair, Pai published a Digital Empowerment Agenda, which outlines his recommendations for

  1. Gigabit Opportunity Zones (bringing broadband and digital opportunity to economically challenged areas)
  2. Mobile Broadband for Rural America
  3. Remove Regulatory Barriers to Broadband Deployment
  4. Promote Entrepreneurship and Innovation

There are a couple of themes in his plans – and to be fair this is an outline not a detail strategy but I think the themes are worth consideration.

Theme: Lessen Government Restrictions

Pai suggests that state and local lawmakers must adopt streamlined, broadband deployment-friendly policies, FCC should reform its pole attachment rules to reduce the costs of deployment, Congress should give the agency additional authority over poles owned by governments and railroads and  federal government should speed the deployment of broadband on federal lands and the FCC should use its existing authority to remove state and local barriers to deployment, such as unfair and unreasonable fees.

Theme: Tax cuts for Businesses

Pai recommends significant tax incentives to spur private-sector gigabit broadband deployment, tax credits to offsets the employer’s share of payroll taxes, a “rural dividend” to supplement existing funding sources and  promoting entrepreneurs’ access to capital. I’d like to see greater detail on these incentives. Pai led the FCC to vote to provide $170 million in CAF 2 funding to NY. I applaud the funding but CAF 2 only requires a provider to build to 10 Mbps down and 1 up. It’s like giving a 10 speed bike to a 16 year old who really wants and needs a car. The bike is better than nothing but it will limit what they can do – like where they can work or go to college.

Minnesota Border to Border grants require that projects are “scalable to 100 Mbps” so improvement builds to more improvement. CAF 2 doesn’t require scalable improvements. For these reasons, many people argue that CAF 2 isn’t a good use of taxpayer funds.

Theme: Wireless is Good Enough for Rural

All of Pai’s upgrades for rural areas are based on mobile technology. I have said before there will always be a place for wireless. But mobile broadband is not a good permanent solution for rural areas. There are d Distance limitations and data caps make mobile unaffordable to the end user. Some wireless providers are talking about 5G as a solution but 5G is still an undefined standard with greater distance restrictions than 4G and it requires greater infrastructure.

There are some providers who have figured out how to serve the current and future needs of rural area. (Hiawatha Broadband and Paul Bunyan to name just two.) And they aren’t focusing on mobile. We need to find a way to get the right incentives to the folks who are deploying long term broadband solutions to rural areas.

Absent Theme: Public-Private Partnership

Bucking every trend and recommendation I’ve seen related to rural broadband – public-private partnership is not mentioned once in his agenda. His solution is provider driven. It requires motivated providers.  For communities where the provider is not interested they need better tools to make it happen than tax incentives and broadband-friendly policies.

This entry was posted in FCC, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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