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Notes from the Sandbox: The Rural Broadband Experiment

by: Jonathan Chambers, Chief, Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis

March 11, 2014

In his office at home, the Chairman of the FCC keeps a slice of an old C&P telephone pole, a small piece of history commemorating the Pole Attachments Act of 1978. It is a reminder of the physical nature of networks. The networks that carry my observations to you are physical and tangible – poles, ducts, conduits, wires, antennae on towers, nondescript buildings housing cables, routers, servers, generators and cooling units, and, of course, glass, millions of miles of glass.

That slice of telephone pole is also a reminder of how networks are built, and how an occasional nudge from the government can make a difference. I was fortunate enough to know some of the pioneers in cable and wireless when I worked with them in the 1990s. They were the ones who had climbed poles, the ones who had spliced cable and dug trenches and connected communities to the rest of the world, one community at a time. The cable pioneers built networks in rural areas where a television set couldn’t pick up a broadcast signal. First, they provided their communities with basic television service and then something interesting happened. They showed the country that cable television wasn’t a service just for rural communities – that with a new type of network you could watch more than local broadcast television. Those early pole climbers first helped themselves and their communities and then showed the rest of us what was possible.

Five weeks ago, the FCC initiated an experiment to inform our policies to build next generation networks in rural America. We invited proposals to tell the FCC whether there is interest in constructing high bandwidth networks in high cost areas, and to tell us how it could be done. We issued an invitation, and the response has been astounding. To date, we have received nearly 1,000 expressions of interest from all parts of the country and more are being filed every day. Proposals from rural telephone companies, from rural electric co-ops, from cable and wireless service providers, from schools and libraries, from research and education networks, from communities. The proposals are varied, geographically and technologically diverse, yet all have a common theme. They are expressions of a desire to deliver better, more robust Internet access service, faster speeds to communities in rural areas. They are expressions by people who understand that high bandwidth services are becoming increasingly important to the future of economic development, education, health care, government services, entertainment, information, communication and creativity. And many, such as those from telephone and electric co-ops and anchor institutions, are expressions from organizations rooted in local communities. 

As we continue to receive these expressions of interest, our next steps are to gather and share information. The Commission is seeking public comment on a number of issues regarding the rural broadband experiment as part of our proceedings on technology transitions. On March 19, we are hosting a rural broadband workshop to which we have invited a broad group of experts from rural communities. After we have received input from the public, the FCC will consider the right budget and selection criteria for the next phase of this undertaking.

Recently, I read an article about the fastest Internet access service in Europe. Not in London or Brussels or Paris. It is happening in rural northern England, where farmers, business owners and village residents teamed up in a build-it-yourself project and were deploying fiber to the home with 1 gigabit per second connections. The expressions of interest filed with the FCC demonstrate that same entrepreneurial spirit – from communities and from a diverse set of companies. It is the spirit of the pole climbers I knew in the 1990s. The Pole Attachments Act of 1978 may seem like an arcane part of network history, yet it was an example of the type of government initiative that can help unlock that entrepreneurial spirit. Whether the FCC ultimately receives a thousand more expressions of interest for rural broadband, we already hear you. Let’s roll up our sleeves and build networks. 

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