SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The FCC will focus on the build-out of high-speed networks in underserved areas and work to expand mobile broadband access throughout the U.S. this year, according to Zachary Katz, chief of staff and chief counsel to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Katz, speaking at a roundtable discussion with the California Broadband Council on Thursday, Jan. 12, said the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) — a $4.5 billion annual program that launched in November 2011 to revamp the commission’s outdated universal service and intercarrier compensations systems — will devote $300 million to areas where networks aren’t being developed.
The FCC is currently developing a finance model to begin the effort, but Katz said that the FCC envisions, in the long term, a competitive bidding system for a five-year commitment to building out an area.
“A big part of this is the idea of targeting support in areas where you truly need it, where there isn’t another subsidized competitor: whether a cable company or another provider that can offer services,” he said.
The FCC is considering mobile broadband as a separate component of its program, Katz said. The commission has set aside $500 million of the CAF budget for mobility issues.
“I think this is the first recognition we’ve ever had, at least at the federal level, that mobility is independent and an important goal for universal service,” Katz said. “Just having fixed residential service is not enough in the 21st century for public safety, economic reasons [and] for education and other purposes.”
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley, said in a statement that devices such as smartphones and tablets require fixed and mobile broadband networks that reach every corner of California. So the federal and state universal service programs are another tool for getting high-speed networks built.
Katz emphasized that although the $500 million was budgeted for mobile efforts, it isn’t the total sum of money available for wireless investment. He said that the FCC anticipates that in the fixed location part of the CAF program, it may turn out that some wireless carriers can offer 4G LTE connectivity with speed and capacity sufficient to compete with wired providers.
Additional money in the CAF program will go toward efforts to overcome broadband challenges in remote areas and also help fund a recovery program for incumbent local exchange carriers — local telephone companies — that will receive reduced revenues under CAF.
Work being done in the states has been on the FCC’s radar. Within the CAF program, the agency will partner with states on issues surrounding call completions in rural areas. Katz said the FCC is paying attention to incidents of phone calls in rural areas being dropped or problems with call quality.
The FCC also hopes that states will continue to give feedback about communications issues and state-generated ideas, such as San Francisco’s free Wi-Fi network.
“We think of the states as laboratories for innovative policy ideas,” Katz said. “A number of specific changes we made to our rules were developed, hatched and grown in the states. It was having that testbed, that laboratory [which] enabled us to do something nationwide that we felt would serve the public interest.”
Katz maintained that the key to better broadband accessibility will be the partnership between the FCC and the states.
“In some ways, the input we’re hoping to get from California stakeholders and others over the coming months is the most important in the whole process,” Katz said. “Because we now have a framework, but that framework will succeed or fail based on data and facts coming into the record from these proceedings.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.