Despite internet penetration levels of nearly 87% last year, according to Internet Live Stats, the United States is still plugging away at connecting the “last mile,” or the remaining regions of the country without internet access. Rural areas are the primary focus; various projects over the years have taken stabs at how best to utilize radio waves (white spaces) and other tools to bring the web to rural residents. The Federal Communications Commission’s (F.C.C.) Connect America Fund (C.A.F.), under the auspices of the Universal Service Fund, is aiming to play a big role in helping telcos to extend their services, most recently in the state of Maine.
FairPoint Communications has accepted $13.3 million in annual support from the F.C.C. for the state of Maine. The grant is part of Connect America Fund’s phase II funding round. Fairpoint will construct and operate network infrastructure and offer broadband service speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to 35,500 locations in Maine. The project will accept the C.A.F.’s support for six years.
This is one of many initiatives in various states for which the C.A.F. is doling out cash. Over the summer, service providers went through the process of deciding how much to accept from the C.A.F.-II, the second phase of its program. The F.C.C. voted in 2011 to reform the Universal Service Fund with the Connect America Fund as the centerpiece, and its first phase invested more than $438 million to bring broadband to 1.6 million people. The second phase involves investing nearly $9 billion over the course of five years to expand broadband in rural areas in addition to doubling the download speeds required for subsidized broadband networks from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. (It’s worth noting that some telco giants like AT&T and Verizon passed on the F.C.C.’s phase 1 funding, citing their own capacity to address lack of connectivity in rural areas.)
A number of other telcos have accepted funding, including Windstream Communications in Oklahoma, which received $7,788,213 from the C.A.F. to expand and support broadband to 33,482 of its rural customers. In June, Frontier Communications accepted $283.4 million to expand its broadband networks to 1.3 million rural customers across 28 states. And Hawaiian Telcom announced yesterday that the company has been awarded more than $4 million annually for six years in order to continue expanding its high-speed internet service in Hawaii’s rural areas.
But the C.A.F. is not the only project aiming to connect those living in rural regions. In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), an agency that has been monetarily supporting rural connectivity programs since the early 2000s, announced $74.8 million in telecom loans and $11 million in Community Connect grants to increase access for rural residents in seven states. The U.S.D.A. has also historically given millions of dollars to provide broadband service in tribal areas and Native Alaskan communities.
Other groups — many non-governmental — are studying how to take advantage of white spaces (also known as Super Wi-Fi or Super-Fi) to better deliver broadband to rural areas via low frequency radio waves. This technology is still in its infancy stage, with some legal obstacles in the way.
But overall, connecting the last 13% of America seems to be on the horizon, perhaps as soon as 2020. The landscape of connectivity in rural America will be a map to watch.