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"Universal service" should encompass broadband Internet access in the same way that it originally encompassed telephone access, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission to Congress.

The report, Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy, is written by Michael Copps, acting chairman of the FCC. It was written for Congress as a preliminary step for a national broadband plan, due in 2010, and as a requirement from the 2008 Farm Bill.

In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, Congress appropriated $7.2 billion for broadband grants, loans, and loan guarantees to be administered by the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the report noted.

RUS, one of a number of agencies charged with helping improve broadband access in rural areas, came under criticism earlier this year for making $1.35 billion in loans that primarily added broadband Internet service to areas that already had it, rather than by bringing it to areas without it.

"Congress recognized that this funding initiative, though substantial, was still just a down payment on the broadband needs of the country, and that even after this money has been invested, many Americans, including those residing in rural areas, will continue to lack access to critical broadband services," the report said. "Therefore, the Recovery Act charges this Commission with developing a national broadband plan by next February to ensure that every American has access to broadband capability and establishing clear milestones for reaching this goal."

A project last year, though flawed, found that the U.S. ranked 15th among industrialized countries in broadband Internet speed. Today's FCC report also noted that while the average download speed for residential broadband subscribers in the United States is currently 2.3 Mbps, residential subscribers in Japan now average 63 Mbps, and that service providers in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore either offer 1 Gbps residential service now or are planning to have comprehensive 1 Gbps residential service in the near future, and South Korea is complementing its fiber rollout with 10 Mbps wireless 4G services for mobility.

On the other hand, a report issued by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in January found that a number of people who don't already have broadband Internet access don't want it even if it were available.

Recommendations in the FCC report include:

  • Increasing coordination among federal agencies; Tribal, state, and local governments; and community groups and individuals
  • Assessing broadband needs, including stimulating and sustaining interest in broadband among rural users
  • Considering all proceedings that could affect rural broadband, including universal service reform, network openness, spectrum access, middle mile/special access reform, intercarrier compensation, access to poles and rights of way, tower siting, and video programming proceedings

The report does not yet include the broadband Internet access map that Congress in October, 2008 charged the FCC with providing. However, it estimated that broadband access was available to 82.8 percent of the U.S. rural population, compared with 99.0 percent of the non-rural population.

Comparing broadband Internet access to electricity, the report described the Rural Electrification Act, which brought first electricity and then phone service to farms, of which only 11.6 percent had electricity in 1936. "A shortsighted policy that brought the convenience, innovation, and new opportunities of electricity and telephone service only to urban and a smattering of rural areas could have created two Americas of utility haves and have-nots," the report noted. "We cannot make this mistake today."

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