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Workshop Provides National Perspective On Rural Broadband

The FCC defines “entry level” broadband speed as 4 megabits download, 1 megabit up. 

In Vermont, more than 20 percent of addresses with broadband access cannot connect at those speeds. There are also those who don’t have access to broadband at any speed.

Vermont is not alone, judging from comments Wednesday at a Washington, D.C. rural broadband workshop hosted by the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told participants that getting broadband to less populated areas is an “important and vexing topic.” Wheeler said universal service is the goal, similar to past efforts to bring land line telephone and electricity to rural America.

The introductory presentations outlined the digital divide between urban and rural areas in terms of access and speeds – and the importance of robust broadband to rural areas, from health care delivery to education and economic development.

The challenge of rural broadband was best summed up by the O’Jays some years ago: “Money, money, money, money.”

That’s where a new FCC rural broadband experiments program will help. The program has received nearly 1,000 “expressions of interest”, included at least two from Vermont. While the budget and criteria haven’t yet been developed, the program promises significant grant support for rural projects. The workshop was designed to help the FCC structure the program.

During an afternoon session, representatives from a number of states described governmental efforts to expand broadband.

California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval explained her state uses money from an advanced service charge levied on telephone users to fund broadband initiatives.

Sandoval told the FCC that its definition of broadband is inadequate. She said California’s standards consider those whose broadband speeds are under  6 megabits down/1.5 up as underserved.  New York state uses a similar standard. 

Lori Sorenson of the Illinois Bureau of Communications and Computer Services said her state’s Broadband Deployment Council is the body responsible for overseeing that state’s efforts, many of which are similar to Vermont. One key difference is a greater emphasis on building a  state-funded fiber network that can be leased by providers who can then compete for customers. 

Federal Rural Utilities Service Administrator John Padalino was among the government officials who listened to the presentations.

At one point Padalino seemed to acknowledge that other voices should be heard.

“How can national policy make sure local communities have input?” he asked. “Not just modeling, not just maps…but community input into what sort of projects we ought to fund.”

As the FCC crafts its new rural broadband experiments program, which will be used to launch an even larger funding effort, it will be interesting to see how the commission answers Padalino’s question.