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Sharon Gillett

Improving communications in rural America has always been a focus for the FCC, and the primary vehicle to achieve that goal has been the Universal Service Fund.  Despite great strides in this arena, one area where rural America still lagged the rest of the country was access to broadband.  Eighteen million Americans still have no high-speed Internet, and millions live, work, and travel in areas without mobile broadband coverage.  To address this gap, we took on the massive, once-in-a-generation task of retooling our rural subsidy system, creating the Connect America Fund to finish the job of connecting rural America to broadband, while bringing accountability and fiscal responsibility to programs that for too long lacked both.  We’re moving forward aggressively to implement these important changes.

Last Thursday, the Wireless and Wireline Bureaus began the process of implementing the Mobility Fund, which will allocate $300 million in support of the expansion of mobile broadband service into areas where it is not provided today.  The Bureaus’ Public Notice announced that the Mobility Fund auction will take place September 27, 2012, and sought comment on various auctions-related issues.  The Bureaus also released a preliminary list of the holes in current mobile broadband coverage that could be eligible for support from the Fund, along with a fully interactive map depicting those holes and providing demographic data.  The Wireline Bureau also released on Monday a Public Notice to move forward the process of allocating an additional $300 million this year for extending new fixed broadband service to rural homes and businesses. These are examples of how we are pinpointing areas that lack broadband to make smart use of subsidies -- zeroing in on the rural communities that have been left behind, while ensuring continued availability of robust broadband in areas that already have it.

Even as we’re focused on expanding broadband, we remain committed to ensuring affordable access to voice. That’s why, earlier this week, we took another significant step to tackle what’s known as the “rural call completion” problem, which undermines the quality and reliability of rural voice service.  Smaller rural carriers have reported an alarming increase in complaints about long-distance calls and faxes that never reach their customers, poor call quality, and other problems. These failed calls have a serious impact on rural consumers, businesses, public safety, and more.

Many of these calling problems appear to arise in rural areas where it is more expensive for long distance carriers to terminate a call.  In a Declaratory Ruling issued Monday, the Wireline Competition Bureau spelled out in detail that routing practices that result in blocking, choking, reducing or otherwise restricting traffic violate the Communications Act.  We also made clear that the Communications Act prohibits misleading messages that a number is out of service when in fact it’s in service and reachable.  And, under the Act, carriers are responsible for managing the parties they contract with to deliver calls.  The penalty for violating these rules includes fines and license revocation.

Monday’s Declaratory Ruling builds on long-term reforms we adopted last fall that will, over time, largely eliminate incentives for these practices by reducing byzantine intercarrier payments that have discouraged deployment of broadband and advanced Internet protocol networks.

We’re happy to report substantial progress on all these fronts even as we continue working to provide better communications for rural Americans.  So stay tuned!

More information on problems with long distance and wireless calling to rural areas.