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FCC Hikes Internet Speed Standard For Rural Deployment Aid

Per, Law360 (July 24, 2023, 8:44 PM EDT) — The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a new internet speed standard among a host of changes to improve a rural broadband deployment program.

Following months of deliberation, the FCC ordered the changes to the Alternative Connect America Model, which grew out of a legacy universal service program and helps offset the cost of extending internet connectivity to remote areas of the country.

Under the changes adopted Sunday and released Monday, the FCC will require participating carriers to deploy voice and 100/20 megabits-per-second or faster broadband service to all eligible locations in their areas, and makes $13.5 billion in support available over a 10-year extension of the current A-CAM term.

The commission will also ask for public input on future changes to the Enhanced A-CAM. The rural broadband industry has generally supported making improvements to internet speeds in exchange for receiving more support for buildout.

The FCC said Monday that even with the changes, it will continue its longstanding policy of promoting deployment of telecom services in rural areas of the country without favoring any specific technology.

“We’re on a mission to connect everyone, everywhere in this country to high-speed broadband. That includes access in rural areas where the cost to build networks can be steep, often leaving families in these areas on the wrong side of the digital divide,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

The FCC has “long played a critical role delivering communications services to remote communities,” she said. “To meet the needs of consumers today and into the future, we are optimizing the Commission’s programs to bring higher speeds and greater bandwidth to consumers, particularly those living in hard-to-reach areas.”

Rosenworcel first gave the public notice that A-CAM changes were underway when she circulated a draft order to the other commissioners in June, though a program overhaul has been in the works for well over a year.

Before the order, the FCC’s standard for internet service to be considered high speed was 25/3 megabits per second — that is 25 Mbps of download speed and 3 Mbps of upload speed. But the ramped-up A-CAM program increases the standard to 100/20 Mbps in exchange for an extension and incremental increases in support.

The FCC said it will use the agency’s national broadband map to identify deployment obligations of participants and will align with the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program by requiring the carriers to deploy to all locations within four years.

An industry group that closely tracks deployment efforts, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, said late Monday it was still examining all the order’s impacts.

“Given the complexity of promoting and sustaining robust, reliable, and affordable connectivity in deeply rural areas, it will take time to review and determine how today’s order will affect the consumers and communities in areas served by NTCA members — and this is especially true in the instant proceeding where so much will turn on implementation efforts,” said Mike Romano, NTCA executive vice president, in a statement.

“Nonetheless, today’s order and related notices represent a significant step in the debate over how to further the comprehensive mission of universal service,” he said. “We look forward now to conversations about the implementation of this order as well as next steps on universal service in other rural areas, and we hope that the equally important statutory universal service goals of both getting and keeping customers connected will remain the North Star for all such discussions.”

–Additional reporting by Nadia Dreid. Editing by Patrick Reagan.

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