Without an act of Congress, without a presidential executive order, the Obama administration found wasted money last week and rechanneled it to an infrastructure project expected to create 500,000 new jobs and directly affect the quality of life for millions of Americans over the next six years.
You likely didn't hear about it. It didn't much involve politicians and isn't very sexy.
What happened is the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to provide rural Americans with Internet broadband service. Unserved and underserved areas exist in particular throughout the West, including many parts of what might otherwise be considered urban counties like San Diego, Los Angeles and Riverside.
The FCC action shifts up to $4.5 billion annually for the next six years from an outdated fee-collection fund dedicated to subsidizing telephone land-line service to rural America. The action received bipartisan, though wary, praise from members of Congress.
“We are taking a system designed for the Alexander Graham Bell era of rotary telephones and modernizing it for the era of Steve Jobs and the Internet future he imagined,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement after the panel's vote Thursday. “Today’s order puts us on the path to get broadband to every American by the end of the decade.
A map of unserved and underserved areas in the U.S. shows large areas in the West where Internet access is still dial-up or at best still too slow to run a Net-based business. That forecloses the option of bringing e-commerce dollars to areas that, because of their isolation, need it most.
The new Connect America Fund underwrites the cost of building and operating high-speed Internet where it is too sparsely populated to justify corporate investment. Some $500 million of the $4.5 billion yearly outlay will go to a “mobility fund” to help build mobile broadband networks in areas where corporations won't invest.
The money comes from the Universal Service Fund, which was created to ensure that in rural America everyone had access to a basic telephone line. That goal has long been mostly achieved, and much of the fund now has gone to subsidize small, rural telephone companies whose reason for existence largely has passed.
Under the new plan, remote areas that still do not have landline telephone service will be reached instead with broadband Internet service, through which phone service can be provided.
The fund is expected over the next six years to connect 7 million of the 18 million people in the U.S. who currently cannot access reasonably priced high-speed Internet. The agency estimates providing that access will mean a $50 billion economic boost to rural areas, as well as an additional 500,000 jobs.
The goal is broadband speeds of at least 4 megabits per second downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.
“These networks must meet performance criteria that enable the use of common applications such as distance learning, remote health monitoring, VoIP, two-way high quality video conferencing” and more, Genachowski said.
An example of what such access can mean is in the Sangre de Christo mountains of New Mexico, where a $64 million broadband project is already under way, 70 percent of it funded in part by stimulus dollars.
“That’s exciting that we can open up the white-collar businesses to our area with broadband,” said Stuart Hamilton, mayor of the village of Angel Fire. “It’s critical because we’re not going to do manufacturing here. That’s not going to be our base of industry or economic development in Angel Fire because we can’t ship in or ship out,” Hamilton told the Sangre de Christo Chronicle.