FCC allocates $20bn to close US digital divide

One of the genuine risks of the accelerated journey towards the digital economy is the widening digital divide, though an extra $20 billion from the FCC could help even the landscape.

Although the US is one of the most advanced digital nations in the world, the difference between the haves and have nots is quite staggering. If you were to compare the connectivity options for a millennial in San Diego to a farmer in rural Ohio, you wouldn’t assume it was the same country. Some might see it as a first world problem, however with the benefits of connectivity being applied to areas such as education and healthcare, it is irresponsible to allow this divide to continue.

This is the conundrum which the FCC has faced in recent years. It is of course commercially attractive to drive connectivity options in the densely populated urban areas, but such are the sparse and environmentally challenging regions across some of the US, vast numbers of people are being left behind.

Here, the FCC is proposing the establishment of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will direct $20.4 billion towards closing the digital divide.

“In short, we’re proposing to connect more Americans to faster broadband networks than any other universal service program has done,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“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.”

This fund will have a broader scope than the previous Connect America Fund (CAF), and will aim to assist regions which are not currently able to access download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps, significantly higher than the caps placed on the CAF funds.

The funding will be allocated in two phases. Firstly, using data which has already been collected by the FCC, a reverse auction will be implemented to hand out the funds. Alongside this auction, a new data collection tool will be implemented to offer greater depth to the insight. In the second phase, the intelligence gathered through this tool will help allocate funds as well as to those communities which missed out in the first phase.

With what will be known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative, the FCC will aim develop more granular broadband deployment data. This initiative will aim to collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from fixed broadband ISPs, and also develop crowd-sourcing portal that will gather input from consumers as well as from state, local, and Tribal governments. Through crowd-sourcing the data, the FCC will hope to validate the information put forwards by the ISPs.

This is a sensible approach from the FCC, as while the ISPs will have the biggest treasure troves when it comes to data, they have also shown themselves to be misleading in the past. With such a tool at its disposal, the FCC can become a more intelligent organization, taking proactive steps towards fixing the digital divide as opposed to simply signing blank cheques for the telcos to cash.

“I appreciate the hard work that went into this item to fix the Commission’s broken mapping process,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly.

“Like some of the very laudable mapping bills being considered by Congress, including those by Chairman Wicker and Senator Capito, this item takes important steps in creating a more accurate and useful picture of broadband coverage, which should allow the Commission’s universal service policies to better focus on those millions of Americans left behind without access to broadband service today.”

And while this might sound like a positive step-forward, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a political opponent of Pai and O’Reilly, has found something to be irked about. Rosenworcel fears the maps might be replaced by a difficult to find URL and handing control of data collection to the administrator of the funds is not the best way forward.

Although we should not be surprised by the objections, they are incredibly weak. Rosenworcel has said she likes the idea, though her objections are seemingly just trying to be awkward, playing the childish role of political opponent wherever possible. While we rarely have anything positive to say about Pai and his cronies in the FCC, this is a sensible move forward and Rosenworcel seems to be finding objections purely because it adds to the theatrics of politics.

What is incredibly difficult to understand is how severe the digital divide actually is in the US. The FCC suggests there are 21 million US citizens who cannot access acceptable broadband speeds, though Rosenworcel has quoted a report which claims the digital divide is as high as 162 million.

This outlandish claim pays homage to a report from Microsoft which should be taken with a bucketful of salt. Let’s not forget, Microsoft is a firm which will benefit from stoking the fire and attracting additional funds to fuel connectivity deployments in the rural community.

This in itself is one of the significant problems when attempting to tackle the digital divide; no-one actually knows what the starting point is. Depending on your commercial aims and political allegiance, the number of underserved citizens will vary wildly. How can one address a problem when the variables remain unknown? It is nothing more than shooting in the dark, hitting the mark occasionally but likely to miss the most important targets.

Alongside these changes in funding connectivity, the FCC has also released a statement which will address how funding for telehealth services is allocated.

This is where the idea of connectivity can be more than simply a means to access entertainment, taking the digital divide beyond the realms of first world problem. There are communities in the US who are underserved by medical services thanks to doctor shortages and hospital closures. The Rural Health Care Programme aims to address these challenges, making use of connectivity to ensure all US citizens have access to medical services as and when they need them.

The latest proposal is another reform to how funds are allocated, attempting to identify the regions which are most severely underserved. Funding will be increased by 43% to $571 million.