Thursday, October 13, 2011

Community networks should be eligible for CAF subsidies

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is about to release details of its Connect America Fund (CAF) that will reform the current Universal Service Fund that subsidizes switched voice service to instead subsidize Internet connectivity in high cost areas.

The FCC faces a significant challenge in how it defines those areas eligible for CAF subsidies given that wireline Internet access is highly granular. Incumbent investor-owned cable and telephone companies parse their service areas very tightly when it comes to determining what is and what isn't a high cost area for providing Internet service. A given home or business may have access while another just down the road or street is deemed too costly to serve and is relegated to dialup or satellite. These premises can't be described as situated in remote, isolated areas since they are almost on top of areas that have wireline Internet access.

Targeting CAF subsidies to the most remote regions of the United States won't help these folks. They comprise many of the 24 million Americans that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted in a February 7, 2011 speech "couldn’t get broadband today even if they wanted it. The infrastructure simply isn’t there." It's there for their neighbors -- but not for them.

Many communities have responded to this widespread problem by building their own fiber to the premises networks to fill in the gaps. These networks must necessarily overlap the footprints of the incumbent's incomplete, Swiss cheese infrastructures since telecommunications infrastructure like other utilities must cover sufficiently large geographical areas in order to be economically viable. The FCC should designate these community networks as eligible for CAF subsidies if they meet certain requirements such as providing voice and 911 emergency service at standards that meet or exceed those placed on existing wireline providers.

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