The Broadband Opportunity Council, a group that includes input from 25 different government agencies and is led by USDA and the Department of Commerce, this week released a report outlining recommendations designed to facilitate expanded access to internet for rural and underserved areas.
In the report, the group outlines four broad recommendations to improve widespread broadband deployment and dozens more specific actions it expects will result in improved internet service.
The Council, formed in March, augments the Obama Administration's now-accomplished goal of providing 98% of Americans with high-speed 4G mobile broadband. As that need is satisfied, the focus for the council is on providing wired connections for homes and businesses.
The four key recommendations include: Modernizing programs to focus on support for broadband investment; empowering communities to attract broadband investment; expanding access to federal assets to encourage broadband deployment and competition; and improving data collection, analysis and research on broadband.
According to Brandon McBride, administrator of USDA's Rural Utilities Service, the new report "lays the groundwork to build on the tremendous success of deploying broadband under the Recovery Act, which helped USDA and the Commerce Department expand essential broadband service nationwide."
USDA is pushing internet access with help of RUS, which has in the past promoted telecommunications and electricity expansion with the aim of increasing quality of life for rural residents.
RUS will be tasked with implementing the goals in the report, McBride said, and will be looking to rural stakeholders to "offer guidance, expertise and partnership in delivering broadband in areas lacking high speed internet service."
In addition to broad goals, the report also outlines specific commitments for the federal partner agencies to accomplish in the next 18 months.
Some of those commitments include making broadband expansion and eligible program expenditure for USDA's Community Facilities program and other programs. This change would allow communities to bring broadband to health clinics and recreation centers, the report said.
Another commitment is to create an online inventory of data on Federal assets – such as telecommunications towers – that could bring on faster and more economical broadband connections.
The report also recommends that the government create a portal for information on Federal broadband funding that's accessible to communities seeking funding resources.
In all, the report has 36 actions it considers "immediate" – complete with associated milestones – which it says agencies have committed to complete.
Though McBride grants that getting broadband to unserved rural areas is one of the toughest challenges RUS faces, he says the rewards are great.
"One of our Recovery Act broadband projects in Western North Carolina brings people off the mountain so they can use newly connected facilities in an old library, helps troops overseas watch their kids play baseball via a ballfield with internet access, and makes it easier for families to virtually visit Granny while she enjoys her chicken dinner at the local nursing home," he said.
"If we are to deploy broadband to the 50%of rural areas without access to high-speed service, we will need to work hard and work closely with our federal partners and private stakeholders to encourage buildout and adoption," he said.
Read the full Broadband Opportunity Council Report and Recommendations on the White House website.