22 senators: FCC plan 'relegates' countryside to 'second class'

The disparity in goals will widen "the digital divide," the senators said. "Establishing such a low threshold for rural residents and businesses relegates them to second class broadband capacity," the Senate letter said. "It hinders their ability to share in the transformative vision for broadband outlined in the [plan]."

FCC supporters contend that the plan aggressively confronts the challenges of wiring rural America, where the market has not always made it attractive for phone and cable companies to invest in network build-out. The plan, for instance, makes permanent the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, which since 2007 has promised $417 million to help healthcare providers construct or improve broadband networks.

The House letter goes further, criticizing proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund, a pot of FCC cash that subsidizes telephone service in underserved areas. The FCC plan seeks to transition this money instead to subsidize broadband infrastructure, adoption and service. Such a transition would “abandon a successful policy approach,” the House letter says.

The proposed changes to the USF are backed by major Internet service providers such as AT&T but opposed by small, rural phone companies that benefit from the subsidy and hold clout in the districts of several of the letter’s signatories.

The FCC’s 360-page plan, released in March, seeks to boost the connectivity of at least 100 million U.S. homes to 100 Mbps by 2020 while ensuring that everyone access to high-speed Internet. It was mandated by the stimulus package.