Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr travelled from Washington, D.C., to Alaska last week, in a trip aimed at better understanding the challenges of internet access in remote communities. On his final stop in Dillingham, Carr sat down with KDLG to talk about the FCC’s plans for broadband in Alaska.
Ross: Commissioner Carr, thank you for coming in to the studio today.
Carr: Happy to be here.
Ross: This is the end of your five-day trip around Alaska; what role do you see the FCC playing in rural Alaska and other rural communities?
Carr: I think there’s a really important role for the FCC to play here. We started out the week in Unalaska, about halfway out the Aleutian chain. We went up to Wainwright, and Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, and saw some of the challenges that people face. A two-pronged challenge: one, getting broadband to these communities, and two, making sure that it’s affordable for the residents in communities to access. And we’ve learned a lot on this trip that we can take back with us.
Ross: It does seem like Alaska is behind the rest of the country in internet access, especially in rural communities. Do you see the FCC taking concrete steps in the near future towards addressing that problem?
Carr: As a country, we’re doing pretty well when it comes to internet access. But there’s thousands of communities – as you know, many of them here in Alaska, that don’t have the same access to high-speed internet access. It’s what we call the digital divide. And there’s a lot of work the FCC is doing in a very concrete way to try to bridge that divide. One is funding. There’s what we call a Federal Universal Service Program; it’s a ten billion dollar a year fund, and we’re right now in the process of trying to reorient that funding to make sure it’s targeting truly unserved areas. A second big piece of it is going to be regulatory reform. There’s still a lot of regulatory red tape that is only increasing the cost of deploying to rural communities – particularly places like Wainwright, Barrow. There’s permitting issues, whether it’s federal lands you have to cross to bring fiber, whether it’s state and local permitting issues or federal ones. And we’ve been focused on a lot of that regulatory red tape and eliminating it, which can really drive down the cost of bringing broadband to these communities. And another piece that we’re hopeful about is this next generation of technologies that are coming online. There’s a new generation, for instance, of satellites that we’re hoping are going to launch in the next couple years, which could bring higher speed and lower latency as compared to the C-band and other traditional satellites that companies have used.
Ross: What specific funding efforts is the FCC working on? How might the FCC manage funding to help rural communities gain better access to internet or improve the systems that are already in place?
Carr: We have a general universal service fund, but it’s broken up into specific programs. One program, for instance, is called E-Rate, which is designed to make it affordable for schools and libraries to have broadband at their facilities. We have another program called the high-cost fund, which is where you take rural, remote communities – those that are expensive to serve – and we support deployments in those areas. Another area where we’ve been really active at the FCC is tele-health. So, we also have a portion of the fund that goes to allowing it to be affordable for a clinic in a village to get broadband at a price that would be comparable to if they were in a much larger city. So, those are some of the funding mechanisms that we use. We just announced about a week or two ago at our last meeting at the commission that we’re starting a new $100,000,000 pilot program, the idea of which actually came from a very similar trip to this, when we were travelling through the Mississippi delta. We just voted to start the process – it’ll take a while from a regulatory perspective – to support that type of deployment. Because up until now, the FCC has been focused, rightly so, on getting broadband to connected brick and mortar facilities, which is great and we’re going to continue to do that. But now we’re focused on, ‘How do we get that connected care everywhere,’ whether it’s on your smartphone in your home or otherwise. So, those are some of the things that we pick up on trips like this.
Ross: We saw some tele-medicine in action, or a demonstration of it, anyways, at Kanakanak hospital. You also visited a clinic in Manokotak. Does the FCC plan to apportion funding to tele-medicine specifically in rural Alaska?
Carr: We have a specific Alaska Plan, as it’s known, that deals generally with the allocation of some of the universal service dollars to Alaska. And then our separate, as I mentioned, rural healthcare program, is also a program that a significant portion of that funding is going to support deployments here in Alaska. And so it’s been very helpful for us to get the chance to spend the week out here and learn a lot.
Ross: Commissioner Carr, thank you for joining me today.
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