July 11, 2016

Senators to FCC: Close the Rural Broadband Gap

Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) are leading a bipartisan effort urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to update the Universal Service Fund’s (USF) Mobility Fund, which is aimed at providing broadband service to rural and underserved areas. Manchin and Wicker were joined by 26 Senators in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler calling for the agency to prioritize new mobile broadband deployment in these areas as well as preserve and upgrade mobile broadband where it is currently available.

“West Virginia had one the lowest rates of advanced wireless service penetration when the Mobility Fund was established and it’s critical that the FCC address the many coverage gaps that still exist throughout my state,” Senator Manchin said. “Bringing affordable, reliable broadband connections to our communities is necessary to help the rural and remote areas of the nation, like much of West Virginia, connect to the 21st century.”

“Delivering high-speed mobile wireless service in underserved areas is critical to growing the economy, creating jobs, delivering quality health care, and helping farmers deploy precision agriculture technology in the field,” Senator Wicker said. “As the FCC moves forward with the second phase of the Mobility Fund, the agency should seize this opportunity to help close the broadband gap that exists between rural and urban America.”

In addition to Manchin and Wicker, the letter was signed by Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).

Please read the full letter below, or click here.

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

As representatives of states with significant agricultural activity, we share the goal of ensuring that access to high-quality communications networks in rural America remains a top priority for the Commission. 

More than ever before, U.S. farmers and ranchers are demanding reliable, high-speed mobile broadband services.  Mobility is essential for new precision agriculture technologies to deliver productivity gains and environmental sustainability.  These technologies are transforming U.S. agriculture as American farmers and ranchers seek to feed, fuel, and clothe an ever-increasing global population using limited land, water, and other resources. 

We applaud the Commission’s recent decision to allow rate-of-return carriers to access support for “standalone” broadband facilities.  This step will help encourage carriers to deploy modern broadband-capable wireline networks in rural areas.  Importantly, this is necessary as consumers increasingly rely on wireless services and are “cutting the cord” to shift away from wireline voice. Soaring mobile broadband relies on sufficient backhaul, often provided by these wireline networks.  Going forward, sufficient support must also be available to preserve and expand mobile voice and broadband.

Significant work remains to ensure that broadband services are available in rural America and reasonably comparable to services enjoyed in urban areas.  Simply stated, broadband, particularly high-speed mobile broadband, is not readily available in many rural areas or could be at risk absent the right policies and support through the Universal Service Fund (USF). While progress has been made in the deployment of broadband, significant portions of rural areas have been left behind.  According to the FCC, 87 percent of rural Americans (52.2 million) lack access to mobile broadband with minimum advertised speeds of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, compared to 45 percent of those living in urban areas.

Without the certainty that essential mobile broadband infrastructure will be deployed and maintained, investments in agricultural productivity will be delayed or bypassed altogether, and the potential efficiencies and benefits to rural communities will be lost.  The extension of high-speed mobile and backhaul facilities to agricultural croplands and ranch lands must keep pace with the ongoing deployment of technology in the field.  Increasing numbers of modems in the field means a growing demand for connectivity in the areas in which they operate.

The expansion of rural broadband should be a top priority of federal and state policymakers, as expanded deployment in rural areas will address important economic, educational, health care, and public safety goals. Ongoing USF reform can provide a mechanism for enabling mobile broadband access in rural communities where “people live, work, and travel” that is truly comparable to broadband services provided in urban and suburban areas.  To accomplish this goal, USF should support mobile broadband at a minimum of today’s level to close the coverage gap while preserving existing service.

In this regard, we ask you to give special attention as you work to establish Phase II of the USF’s Mobility Fund (MF).  Given the importance of mobile services today, the MF should be retained and updated to ensure that funding will promote new mobile broadband deployment in unserved rural and agricultural areas and preserve and upgrade mobile broadband where it is currently available.  Importantly, the FCC must rely on realistic measurements of network experience on the ground to determine areas to support.  

Croplands and ranch lands have lagged behind in adequate mobile coverage, even as demand for coverage has grown.  To address this coverage gap, we urge you to consider a metric of broadband access in croplands (and farm buildings), or some other geographic measurement, in addition to road miles, to identify these areas of greatest need.  “Cropland” coverage can be assessed using United States Department of Agriculture data for crop operations, the United States Geological Survey’s Land Use classification, or other databases. 

Agriculture is a significant generator of economic activity in our states.  We greatly appreciate your efforts to ensure that the latest mobile broadband services are provided to all Americans, including those in agriculture whose livelihoods depend on it.

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