FCC rural broadband experiment explained, for now

Seeking logical expressions of interest.

The details of a federal initiative to fund high speed broadband trials in rural areas of the U.S. are becoming clearer. The chief of the FCC’s office of strategic planning and policy analysis, Jonathan Chambers, offered some insight about the initial phase of the program during a webinar this morning, organised by the National Rural Assembly.

“Can we do better for rural Americans than is currently being contemplated?” Chambers asked.

Ultimately, the FCC wants to use its Connect America Fund to subsidise experimental broadband build outs in rural areas that don’t have broadband service that hits a minimum of 3 Mbps upload and 768 Kbps download speeds. It will eventually – likely later in the Spring – begin accepting proposals from both incumbent carriers and new providers, including potentially local governments and community-based organisations. It’s one of several experiments approved by commissioners as they try to gauge the impact of transitioning telephone service from traditional dial tone systems to Internet protocol technologies.

For now, though, the FCC’s focus is on getting as many “expressions of interest” in the program as possible by 7 March 2014. Chambers explained that the FCC is not looking for formal proposals or business plans, or “lengthy arguments” about why a particular project in a particular area should be funded. Rather, they want something more like a letter that discusses the general outline of a project, including funding, service concepts, speeds – although offiically technology neutral the specs were written with fiber-to-the-home in mind – and community support. However, there’s no requirement to submit an expression of interest; formal project proposals can be filed later this year regardless.

The program is aimed at broadband providers – incumbents as well as “other parties who also build networks” – “but providers joining with communities makes a very powerful submission”, Chambers said.

He used the 2010 Google community fiber campaign as an example of what the FCC expects from the initial round of expressions of interest: enthusiasm backed by coherent ideas, and lots of them. Letters are supposed to be submitted using the FCC’s electronic comment filing system, under the Connect America Fund proceeding, also known as docket number WC 10–90. Expect to see more detailed instructions from the FCC before the deadline, though. By the way, the FCC’s rural broadband experiment is completely separate from a rural gigabit subsidy program that was included in the recently signed federal farm bill.

Update: Click here to see the webinar