Donut Holes In The Land of Lincoln

After the dust settles on the transition from a POTS-centric, USF/Intercarrier Compensation to a broadband-centric/Connect America Fund approach for rural telecom, will the traditional definition of an incumbent still be valid? That is, if an entity other than the incumbent telco is already supplying broadband to a given area, should that entity be considered the incumbent? More importantly, which entity should be entrusted with support dollars to serve those areas that would otherwise be un-served?

Pawnee, IL outside of town, no terrestrial broadband
Pawnee, IL outside of town, no terrestrial broadband

Broadband availability in rural areas tends to be in the ‘donut holes’.  The donut hole is typically a small town or city with a dense enough population that it can be profitably served by a provider without support (in fact, there is often more than one competitor in town).  It is the less densely populated areas outside the small towns where support is often required, since a business case cannot be made by the by the provider to extend service to these low density routes.

Still, there are small towns that lack broadband from the incumbent telco, but do have broadband from the local cable company or, sometimes, CLEC.  While studying the broadband availability map produced by the Partnership for a Connected Illinois (PCI), this author stumbled upon the small town of Pawnee, IL, which seems to fit the description of a town where the incumbent broadband provider is the cable operator and not the telco.

No, this is not the fictional town of Pawnee, IN, depicted in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but a rural burg located only 18 miles from the state capitol of Springfield; rural, but still relatively close to a small metropolitan area to probably be considered a bedroom community.  Pawnee’s web site describes it as, “A thriving village of approximately 2,700 nestled 3 miles from I-55.”

According to the PCI map, wired broadband is provided by the cable company (the map indicates download speeds of 100 Mb/s – 1 Gb/s and upload speeds of 10-25 Mb/s).  A call to the Pawnee city office confirmed that the incumbent telco does not offer broadband.  A review of the incumbent telco’s web site, however, indicates that it may offer broadband up to 7.1 Mb/s.

As mentioned in the above video interview with PCI Executive Director, Drew Clark, PCI maps are continually being updated in a crowd-sourced manner, so it may be that the maps haven’t yet been updated to reflect what is indicated on the incumbent telco’s web site.  Mapping broadband availability throughout the Land of Lincoln and feeding that information back to businesses and others that can use it to make decisions on where to locate is the focus of for this NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) designated broadband mapping entity, as explained by Clark.

Pawnee looks to be a rural broadband donut hole, as, according to the PCI map, wired broadband is unavailable as close as two miles from town.  Assuming that a wired infrastructure is the ultimate policy goal and that some level of support is necessary to bring broadband to the un-served residences outside of Pawnee, then what entity should get the support to extend broadband to these residences and businesses?

Regardless of the answer, accurate and continually updated maps identifying broadband availability will be an increasingly important tool for policy makers, as they transition from a universal service for telephone service to one that is broadband.

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