U.S. Senators, Federal Agencies Discus Rural Broadband Expansion

The United States Senate Broadband Caucus, co-chaired by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., hosted a panel of rural broadband experts Thursday to report on how rural broadband efforts are being implemented and how continued expansion might be financed.

Doug Kinkoph, associate administrator for the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program is nearing the end of its $4 billion funding.

Funded by the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the program has completed more than 240 projects to expand broadband across the country — 116,000 miles of open access fiber was laid to provide internet access to 26,000 schools, libraries and hospitals.

The need, however, was significantly greater than the available funding, said Kinkoph. They program received 2,800 applications seeking a total of $37 billion in funding — nine times the amount of available funds.

The program opened 3,000 computer centers and provided 47,000 computers for free internet services for those without it at home, and it generated 670,000 new internet subscribers who previously lacked access.

"But our job's not done," he said. "It's about closing the digital divide."

Kinkoph said 33 million households across the United State did not have internet in their homes in 2015.

The panelists agreed that providing service equitably across the country — building up what they call the "middle mile" between service centers and homes — will take partnerships between the federal government, service providers, states, local municipalities, investment capitalists and private investors.

Kinkoph said he expects to see a growing number of capital investors because traditional loan entities need to see capital upfront. He also said revenue sharing agreements are likely to form between communities and investors who can put up money toward expansion.

A Broadband Opportunity Council, which includes 25 federal agencies, has come together to brainstorm creative ways to provide extended service, like opening up more than 4,000 towers on federal land.

Sarah Tyree, vice president of Government Affairs for CoBand, stressed that more and more jobs need broadband. For instance, agricultural customers can use the internet to conserve water with water sensors for real-time reading of ground saturation.

Robin Reed, senior vice president for Loan Operations Cooperative Finance Corporation, said it is well known that broadband is needed to attract business, boost commerce, enhance health care and offer telemedicine, but it also retains populations in rural areas, especially youth.

"We know there is no one-size-fits-all answer," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. "The point is we have to figure that out. There is nothing more important we can do for rural America."

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said years ago, roads and bridges were the things that equaled commerce for areas of the country, but "you simply cannot prosper in the world today if you don't have broadband."

Moving forward, Kinkoph said the BroadbandUSA is an information clearinghouse for communities that want to expand their broadband by bringing together stakeholders, funding sources and problem solving.

They offer one-to-one technical assistance and are helping 110 communities in 30 states map a plan for expansion.

In terms of policy, he noted that the U.S. Treasury is offering new market tax credits for qualifying providers and clarified language now allows broadband to be considered for funding under HUD Community Development Block Grants.

By:  Sarah Plummer
Source: Beckley Register-Herald