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FCC Head Aims to Get America Wired

Midwest-born FCC chairman says getting broadband access to every part of America is his top priority.

To get rural America broadband internet access likely will come through a variety of technologies, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai doesn’t really care which ones. He’s focused on connecting all parts of America, especially underserved rural America.

Pai, in an exclusive interview with Successful Farming magazine, said, “I am very technologically neutral. Whether it’s a satellite in the air, a hot-air balloon, fiber in the ground, or wireless airwaves that a wireless company uses, I think there are many exciting innovations. We want to encourage all of them and to let the market try to figure out how best to connect people.”

You can look to Puerto Rico for a snapshot of wireless broadband progress. Last week, more than 100,000 people in the hurricane-ravaged island got internet access by hot-air balloon provided by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. That could be a “game changer” in terms of connectivity, said Pai.

The chairman knows the impact of getting broadband to farmers and to rural America. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas, a town of 11,000 people. The son of immigrant parents from India, they lived outside of town on a 10-acre pasture, looking right into corn and soybean fields.

What was life like in Parsons? “It was a really good place to grow up, in part because you got a sense of community,” he said. “You knew your neighbors; you knew your neighbors would be there in a moment of need,” he said. “There was a real sense of togetherness that sometimes is lost in 2017. That part of it I’m really grateful for. Having the chance to serve in this position, of course, it definitely informs virtually everything I do – from our work on the digital divide to making sure we combat illegal, unwanted robo-calls. I always try to have rural America in the front of my mind because those are the folks I grew up with.”

If you live in urban America, some 98% of Americans can have access to high-speed internet. That number goes down significantly in rural areas. Front of mind for Pai are two programs he has gotten approved to close the gap.

Connect America

The $2 billion Connect America program is targeted at fixed broadband (the wires that provide broadband across the country). It will be built over 6 years but funding will be phased in over the next 10 years.

Mobility Fund, Phase 2

This will provide $4.5 billion over the next decade to make sure “every part of this country is covered by at least 4G LTE wireless service,” Pai said. The program was inspired by a car trip he took from Wichita, Kansas, to Des Moines, Iowa. He noticed how often his cellular coverage would go down to a single bar and even No Service alerts. Pai recalls, “Then, when I looked at the FCC maps, it said, ‘Whoa, of course you’re covered, no matter where you are in northeast Kansas and southwest Iowa.’ I knew that wasn’t the case.”

When Will it Happen?

Pai hopes it starts moving to auctions “extremely quickly.” In each of the programs, he is utilizing a “reverse auction,” which offers companies the chance to lower their bids in order to win the auction and to deliver services to rural customers. The FCC team is setting up auction rules now, hoping to roll out the program in 2018.

The $2-billion fund requires the awarded companies to build out the networks by 2024.

The Mobility Fund auction has not been scheduled, but it should achieve 85% buildout after 6 years.

Competition Spurs Innovation

Getting companies to compete for funding will make a more efficient process, he says. It could come from anyone: a rural telephone company, a cable company, a wireless company, a satellite, or an electrical cooperative.

With a deep Midwestern background, Pai is very aware of the success of co-ops. “I mean especially in parts of rural America, these are the folks who have incredible pedigrees. They helped wire the countryside in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. That kind of heroed spirit of connecting America is what I want to see happen in the 21st century.”

It’s a nationwide imperative to wire the entire country, just as it was in the last century. “This is just as big, in some ways, as rural electrification was in the 20th century,” Pai says.

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