Dem pushes feds to boost rural broadband speeds

Dem pushes feds to boost rural broadband speeds
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A key Democrat wants other government departments to adopt the Federal Communications Commission's definition of high-speed Internet.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahySenate committee ignores Trump, House budgets in favor of 2017 funding levels Live coverage: Trump's FBI nominee questioned by senators AT&T, senators spar over customers' right to sue MORE (D-Vt.) on Wednesday called on the Agriculture Department to follow the FCCs lead and raise the standard for high-speed Internet for its rural broadband loan program. The program gives money to Internet providers to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved areas.

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“There is no doubt that the FCC has set an aggressive speed standard by which to measure progress, but considering 92 percent of urban Americans have access to the FCC’s baseline speed, it is not out of line with what is being widely offered today,” Leahy wrote in a letter to Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE.

The FCC last year increased its minimum broadband download speed standard more than six-fold, from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps. It also raised its upload speed standard to 4 Mbps. But the Agriculture Department only requires 4 Mbps/1 Mbps to qualify for the loan program.

While the Agriculture Department sets its benchmark much lower than the FCC, it urges loan applicants to allow for faster 25 Mbps speeds. The secretary is allowed to boost the speed benchmark for the program every two years.  

Leahy pointed out that some Internet service providers like Comcast recommend between 16 Mbps to 25 Mbps speeds for home and small business use.

“Rural Americans cannot thrive if entrepreneurs have to leave for urban centers in order to access the tools needed to start or grow their business,” Leahy said.

The FCC’s speed benchmark has caused controversy.

Advocates say it is necessary to keep up with increasing demand and to power multiple connected devices in a home. But Internet service providers and some Republicans say the benchmark has been set artificially high, and is not uniformly applied. 

The FCC recently found that 39 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband Internet, when defined at 25 Mbps.

That number drops to 25 percent for Internet speeds of 10 Mbps, and down to 19 percent for 4 Mbps.