Members of Congress seek flexibility in FCC's rural broadband requirements

Over 40 members of Congress have asked the FCC to give service providers the flexibility they need to deploy high-speed broadband connections to more hard-to-reach communities under the upcoming Connect America Funding II (CAF II) program.

The call for action was a bipartisan effort that included members of both the Republican and Democratic parties--including eight U.S. Senators representing 18 states in rural and urban areas.

CAF II is the final phase of the FCC's Universal Service Fund (USF) reform and its rules will decide whether millions of rural Americans will be able to get broadband service.

A key element of the CAF II program will be providing fiber-fed broadband services, or some form of a fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) type of architecture using a mix of ADSL2+ or VDSL2 with vectoring to deliver the service over the existing copper connection to each home or business.

One of the key issues amongst lawmakers and potential beneficiaries of the CAF II program funds is the FCC's proposal to change the threshold of what is broadband from 4 to 10 Mbps.

These groups, while seeing the utility in 10 Mbps and higher speeds, are concerned that they won't have enough time to build network facilities that will support such speeds.

"While we think this is a good idea, we are concerned that if the Commission more than doubles the speed requirements without allowing the appropriate level of flexibility in other elements of CAF II, the program's mission could be endangered," wrote 14 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "To address this concern, the Commission may want to consider expanding the build-out to 10 years to allow adequate time for the construction of the higher-capacity network."

In addition to expanding the timeline, Caucus members said that the 10 Mbps standard should be a requirement for every service provider serving each market under the CAF II program.

"The same 10 Mbps should apply when identifying broadband availability from all competitors, or else communities with just 4 Mbps would be left behind," wrote the Caucus members.

CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), which accepted a total of $54 million from the FCC's Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase I funds in 2013, also does not debate the utility of providing its rural customers with a 10 Mbps connection, but agrees that building out the necessary last mile and middle mile network infrastructure will require more time.

"Originally, the plan under Commissioner Genachowski called for five years with 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, but Wheeler came in and said 4/1 is not going to cut it so he changed it to 10 Mbps," said David Bartlett, VP of Federal Legislative Affairs for CenturyLink, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "We have no problem with 10 Mbps as long as we get additional time to do it and 10 years would allow us to do that."

Besides allowing for more time, CenturyLink said the FCC needs to ensure that it resolves the census block verification issue.

Under the partial census block process, if there's a carrier, or someone claiming to serve a census block, they technically only have to serve one person or one household and the entire rest of the census block is disqualified from support.

"Not only is it just a claim, you don't have to prove it," Bartlett said. "You could claim to serve one place and everyone else is boxed out, which is hundreds of thousands of potential customers who will be left with nothing simply because of a claim of someone in the census block."

To support the 10 Mbps speeds, CenturyLink and other providers that take CAF II funds would likely deploy a similar FTTN-based network infrastructure that it has used to provide services in larger cities and towns they serve today.

Whether they do it on aerial telephone poles or underground, Bartlett points out that having to build out fiber to remote terminal sites in rural towns becomes more challenging.

The support needs to be there to address more remote areas where there may be only 10-20 people per square mile.  

"To get these kinds of speeds and really future proof things to make things scalable in the future because even 10 Mbps will be obsolete in a few years, this is a fiber build plan," said Bartlett. "In order to build out this concentric ring from your more dense areas and go into remote areas, it becomes more expensive to trench fiber or go aerial, it's more expensive and the returns on your investments are lower because the densities are much lower."

However, not everyone is in agreement with the FCC's 10 Mbps assessment for the CAF II program.

Frontier Communications said in April that the regulator's proposal to raise the broadband speed obligations from 4 to 10 Mbps is not a realistic proposition unless it alters the funding model.

At the time, the service provider said that the FCC should consider allowing service providers to extend broadband services to rural markets without having to deliver 10 Mbps to every location. It added that while a large percentage could get 10 Mbps, others could get at least 6 Mbps, and the most remote customers could get up to 4 Mbps.

Related articles:
Frontier says FCC's CAF II 10 Mbps proposal isn't realistic
FCC's Connect America Fund II receives mixed response
CenturyLink's CAF-I broadband project to bring 40 Mbps to rural Roanoke Valley, N.C., customers
AT&T, Frontier, other telcos' rural broadband boosted by $255M in CAF-I grants