Improving Wireless Coverage in Rural America

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting Tucker County, West Virginia. This area is home to beautiful countryside and a tightly knit community where people work hard and look out for one another. One thing Tucker County does not have is good wireless coverage.

My host, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, organized a roundtable discussion at the Tip Top coffee shop, where local residents shared concerns about how spotty service undermined public safety since residents can’t reliably reach 911 during an emergency. Others spoke of how wireless “dead spots” were hurting the local economy, not only by hampering business operations, but also by deterring tourists who don’t want to be completely off-the-grid. I personally had trouble finding a signal throughout my trip, so it was clear where they were coming from.

At our November monthly meeting, the Commission will consider a series of items that could improve wireless coverage in Tucker County and similar areas across the country.

This starts with a proposal to move forward with Phase II of the Mobility Fund. As part of the Commission’s landmark reforms to the Universal Service Fund in 2011, we created the Mobility Fund to spur deployment of advanced wireless infrastructure. The first phase of the Mobility Fund and Tribal Mobility Fund made available $350 million to build out mobile networks in rural America. 

A top priority of Phase II is making sure investments are better targeted to expand and preserve 4G LTE coverage in areas where it would be unavailable absent universal service support, especially in rural areas. We recently took an important step toward that goal when we released the most detailed analysis ever of wireless coverage in rural areas as a roadmap to how to best allocate funds to the areas of greatest need.

This analysis found that significant LTE coverage gaps still exist throughout America. Excluding Alaska, 11 percent of the nation’s road miles have no 4G LTE coverage at all, including no subsidized coverage. We now know that 16 percent of all square miles have no LTE coverage or only subsidized coverage. And 1.4 million Americans currently have no access to LTE coverage at all, and 1.7 million live in areas where the only LTE coverage relies on a subsidy.

I am circulating proposed rules for Phase II of the Mobility Fund, which would leverage this new coverage data, allow for the targeted use of additional data to validate eligibility decisions, and use a competitive “reverse auction” bidding process to allocate more than $470 million in annual support to preserve and extend 4G LTE coverage. The proposal also sets minimum network performance and service requirements to make sure rural residents aren’t stuck with second-rate service.  And in recognition of the distinct challenges in bringing connectivity to Tribal lands, the proposal would allocate a portion of the overall support specifically for qualifying Tribal lands and offer bidding credits for Tribally-owned and controlled providers.      

Another effective tool to help enhance consumer choice for wireless service in rural areas is “roaming.” To compete in the mobile marketplace, carriers must be able to offer nationwide coverage. Roaming agreements have made it possible for smaller providers – particularly in rural areas – to do business.

The Commission currently has two roaming frameworks; a “just and reasonable” standard for voice roaming and a “commercially reasonable” standard for data roaming.  In the 2015 Open Internet Order, the Commission committed to revisiting data roaming obligations of mobile providers. To honor that commitment, I am proposing a unified “just and reasonable” roaming standard for both voice and data.

Furthermore, carriers are increasingly providing voice service using Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE), an evolution of voice service that involves transmitting voice calls using streams of data. This proposal would also classify VoLTE under the “just and reasonable” standard as with other voice calls. Our   aim is to provide consumers with seamless access to service in all areas of the country, regardless of provider and regardless of how a particular voice call is delivered.

If there is going to be universal wireless coverage, there needs to be fair access to backhaul. In many areas, competition in the supply of backhaul remains limited, and that can translate into higher costs for wireless networks, higher prices for consumers, and an adverse impact on competition.

At our November meeting, the Commission will vote on my proposal to encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services, which are used for wireless backhaul, while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold back wireless coverage.

Rounding out our November meeting will be an Order to increase the availability of video-described programming and to make it easier to access. Whether its people with disabilities or the residents of our most isolated rural communities, the FCC is committed to making sure all Americans have access to modern communications. With these actions, we will once again advance the cause of universal access.


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