Thanks to its population boom and its vast and diverse geography, Texas is faced with an odd dynamic which contains both highly-connected, densely populated urban areas and loosely-connected, sparsely populated rural ones.
This presents a problem wherein the population centers have access to innovative new tech and rural Texans are largely left holding the bag.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a new plan to help reduce the number of rural Americans — and 2.7 million Texans — who lack broadband access. The benchmark for areas that are “underserved” is anything less than 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) — a bandwidth metric which could be entirely eaten up by streaming one movie on Netflix.
A whopping 25 percent of rural Texans, compared with two percent of urban Texans, lack quality broadband service. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to create the Rural Broadband Opportunity Fund (RBOF), which will have $20.4 billion at its disposal to improve rural broadband access over the next 10 years.
The FCC says it “will provide funding through a reverse auction to service providers that will deploy infrastructure that will provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in the parts of the country most in need of connectivity.”
Because of the way current FCC service mapping is done — which tracks coverage by census block and counts a given area “covered” if one person or more have access to 25 Mbps or higher broadband service — the plan itself is split into two phases.
The first phase, which will use $16 billion of the funds available, will target the “wholly unserved census blocks” based on the current FCC method of data collection.
The second phase will use the remaining $4.6 billion to target “unserved locations in partially unserved census blocks.” Those areas will be pinpointed by a more specific, “granular” method called the “Digital Opportunity Data Collection” — which gets a more precise coverage map than the current method.
To do this, money from the RBOF will be divvied out to companies who win a reverse auction to build the necessary broadband infrastructure in these unserved and underserved areas.
The FCC’s role in the project — separate from selecting the auction winners — will be to provide oversight on the implementation and spending of the capital and to facilitate a coverage transition from areas where a service provider already exists, but another won the auction as part of the RBOF program.
Pai said in his statement about the program, “I’m excited about what this initiative will mean for rural Americans who need broadband to start a business, educate a child, grow crops, raise livestock, get access to telehealth, and do all the other things that the online world allows. And I look forward to kicking off this new auction next year.”
Connected Nation Texas, an organization which works “to ensure that all can experience the benefits of broadband,” supports the measure.
Director of Policy for Connected Nation, Lindsay Conrad, told The Texan, “We believe [the RBOF] will go a long way to bridge the digital divide, especially in rural Texas communities.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued her own statement in which she approved in part, and dissented in part. She approves of the general idea of the plan: expanding broadband access to rural communities.
But Rosenworcel dissents in the implementation, saying she A) does not think the plan goes far enough towards treating broadband as a public utility, like was done in the 1930s with the Rural Electrification Act, and B) that phase one starts before the necessary data for phase two is collected.
Pai addressed the latter concern, stating, “It makes about as much sense as deciding not to provide medicine to anyone suffering from an illness outbreak until everyone who is sick from that outbreak has been identified.”
Right now, the program is in a comment period which is open for 30 days after the rule change is placed in the Federal Register. For 60 days after the rule appears in the Federal Register, the FCC will reply to comments made about the project.
Comments are open to the public and can be made here.
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.