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FCC Looks to Update Rural Broadband Subsidy Program

The agency is starting the process to raise the speed requirement to 100Mbps for rural broadband providers receiving subsidies.

A laptop sitting in a wheat field, backlit by sunshine.
The FCC wants to make sure that people in rural areas get high-speed internet access, too. 
Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to begin a process to update a universal service subsidy program meant to get broadband to areas of the country that are the hardest and most expensive to reach. 

The agency is looking to increase the speed obligation for subsidy recipients to 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads. The agency is also looking to find other ways to align its broadband subsidy rules with requirements outlined in the Commerce Department's Broadband, Equity Access and Deployment Program, which came out of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law in November.

The program update comes as the Biden administration pushes to close the digital divide. It's an issue that's dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent by the federal government each year to get more Americans connected, millions still don't have access to broadband, according to the FCC. 

The issue took on new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people across the country were forced into lockdown. Schoolchildren needed the internet to attend school. Adults whose jobs allowed for it had to work from home. And countless Americans accessed health care remotely via the internet. 

"We're on a mission to connect everyone, everywhere in this country to high-speed broadband," FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said Thursday. "We've got new tools to do it courtesy of new laws like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and new initiatives like the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program. But the old tools matter, too."

In addition to increasing network speeds, the FCC is looking at whether it should require companies receiving the subsidies in these high-cost areas to have baseline cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans; something the new program under the Jobs Act also requires. 

"Networks that are subsidized and built with federal funds must be secure," said Democrat FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. "This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks on American networks from hostile state and non-state actors."