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Closing the ‘Digital Divide’ Means Sizing It up First

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would create a national standard for assessing whether rural mobile broadband services are “reasonably comparable” to those in urban areas.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, was the lone no vote on the Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act of 2018, which would require new Federal Communications Commission regulations 180 days after being signed into law.

If passed, the FCC would craft the new benchmark using data on the average speed and signal strength of commercial mobile broadband service in the 20 most populous metropolitan areas.

“This legislation will help us bridge that ‘digital divide’ like exists in my state and throughout other parts of rural America,” said Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, after the vote. “While progress has been made, when it comes to improving access to rural broadband, we still have too many areas that continue to fall behind.”

Next Century Cities, a network committed to closing the digital divide, applauded the bill’s effort to ensure comparable broadband access nationally but took issue with its definition of “underserved” rural areas as those where average speed and signal strength lags behind that of the 20 biggest metros.

The FCC’s minimum broadband standards are 25 Megabits per second for download speeds and 3 Mbps for upload speeds.

“When it comes to minimum speed definitions for broadband, we believe that should be uniform across rural and urban areas,” Christopher Mitchell, NCC policy director, told Route Fifty. “We oppose any effort to water down the 25-3 standard.”

Capito worked on the bill with Sen. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, who added the requirement that the FCC report to Congress on its progress every 180 days and periodically update the data informing the standard.

Gigabit-speed internet is increasingly common in urban areas but only 10 to 20 percent of rural America is on a similar path, Mitchell said.

“I think this bill will give us a sense of how far rural drifts from urban,” he said.

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