FCC considers boosting Internet speeds in rural areas

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The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to boost Internet service for rural Americans.

During a meeting on Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to move ahead with plans to improve speeds of Internet service in rural areas.

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The agency will explore how to direct federal subsidies to wireless services and whether it should raise the required Internet speeds from 4 megabits per second (Mbps) to 10 Mbps.

The FCC also said it will implement planned increases in federal subsidies for Internet and phone companies in rural areas to $1.8 billion next year. 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called Wednesday’s vote “a series of important decisions” to connect rural residents.

The FCC also voted to raise the minimum price for phone companies that receive federal subsidies. Under the item passed by the agency Wednesday, those companies will have to charge customers $20.46 per month. 

Currently, they are required to charge $14, and the companies would begin phasing in the higher prices starting at the beginning of 2015.

The Commission’s two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, raised concerns before voting in favor of the item.

O’Rielly called the agency’s consideration of increasing speed requirements to 10 Mbps “a questionable approach,” while Pai slammed the move to increase the rate floor for subsidized service.

“Over 1 million rural Americans can expect their local telephone rates to increase by up to 46 percent,” Pai said.

“It will harm access to service for some of the most vulnerable consumers,” including the elderly, he continued.

Pai cited objections in statements from lawmakers and trade groups and in comments filed at the agency.

“When so many voices make such a reasonable request, its very disappointing that the commission’s answer today is no,” he said. “Our response should be different.”

Wheeler pushed back against Pai’s criticism, saying that the increased floor rate is necessary to make sure the phone subsidy system works as Congress intended.

“Congress told us that those subsidies should not produce disparate results in consumers’ wallets,” Wheeler said.

“This isn’t a rural versus urban issue. This is a matter of how subsidies work.”