Washington, DC

In the Matter of )


Request for Comments on Deployment )

of Broadband Networks and ) Docket No. 011109273-1273-01

Advanced Telecommunications )




The National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) is pleased to submit these comments in response to the Notice issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) seeking input on a wide range of issues related to broadband deployment throughout the United States.

  1. Summary
    1. While NRTC is encouraged by the steady deployment of broadband services in rural America, we support the NTIA’s efforts to articulate a national goal of universal broadband access, similar to those implemented for universal electrification and telephone service. Such a policy – currently being encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – would ensure access to critical broadband services for all Americans, regardless of location.
    2. To achieve widespread deployment of broadband services, the NTIA should promote facilities-based competition. A multitude of competitive providers throughout the country will best ensure universal access to broadband.
    3. To facilitate this goal, the FCC’s regulatory definitions should be revised. For example, the two currently competitive Ku-band Internet services meet the FCC’s definition of "advanced services" (i.e. capable of delivering transmission speeds in excess of 200 kbps in at least one direction). Pending legislation and many rural broadband support programs, however, ignore this definition and rely solely on the FCC’s more restrictive definition of "advanced telecommunications capability" (i.e., infrastructure capable of delivering a speed in excess of 200 kbps in each direction). These different, inconsistent definitions have impaired the development of a uniform national policy on broadband and have limited the availability of funding for some high-speed services.
    4. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell recently expressed his interest in adopting less rigid definitions of broadband that focus on general functionality rather than on specific characteristics of speed or technology. We agree that rigid definitions are inappropriate. The NTIA should urge the FCC to revise its current definitions in order to encourage the growth of packet-switched Internet technologies, which are faster-than-dial-up, during the transition to higher speed, more competitive services.

  1. Background.
    1. NRTC is a not-for-profit cooperative comprised of 684 rural electric cooperatives, 124 rural telephone cooperatives, 184 independent rural telephone companies and affiliates located throughout 46 states. NRTC’s mission is to assist its members in providing advanced telecommunications technologies to rural America. NRTC has long been a provider of satellite-delivered multichannel video programming services to rural households, beginning with C-band programming services and continuing today as a distributor of DIRECTV direct broadcast satellite (DBS) programming. NRTC’s members and affiliates currently provide DIRECTV service to more than 1.8 million DBS subscribers.
    2. Bandwidth to support broadband communications has become a key telecommunications priority for rural America. This past year, NRTC entered into agreements with the two currently competing Ku-band Internet carriers – Hughes Network Systems, Inc. (HNS) and EchoStar’s StarBand Communications – to distribute high-speed service via satellite to subscribers throughout rural America. Recently, some NRTC members have begun to offer HNS’s DIRECWAY and EchoStar’s StarBand services in various rural areas through NRTC’s "TrueBand High-Speed Internet" (HSI) program.

  1. The NTIA Should Adopt a Goal of "Access For All" to Broadband Services.
    1. The impact of broadband services on the economic and social well-being of the United States cannot be overstated. Without access to broadband services, persons living in rural areas are unable to compete on the same level as urban Americans. The NTIA recgonized the importance of broadband services to rural America, when it stated in a joint report with the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) that "the rate of deployment of broadband services will be key to the future economic growth of every region, particularly in rural areas that can benefit from high-speed connections to urban and world markets."
    2. This goal of universal access to broadband services is one strongly championed by FCC’s Chairman Powell. In a recent interview, Chairman Powell stated his belief that a "principal objective" for broadband policy should be the "commit[ment] to achieving universal availability of broadband."
    3. A recent survey by the National Telephone Cooperative Association (NTCA) illustrates overwhelming support of the Chairman’s view. NTCA is a national association of approximately 540 local exchange carriers in 44 states providing service primarily in rural areas. All NTCA members are small carriers that are "rural telephone companies" as defined in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Population density in most member service areas is in the range of 1 to 5 customers per square mile. In its report, NTCA noted that virtually all survey respondents recognize the importance of broadband to their future business development.
    4. High-speed, interactive tools are exactly what rural communities need to promote economic development. The NTIA previously concluded that rural areas are lagging behind central cities and urban areas in broadband penetration. Despite higher penetration rates in urban areas, NRTC remains optimistic about the availability and growth of various technologies for rural consumers to achieve access to broadband services. The source of this optimism is the current availability of two competitive Ku-band broadband satellite services and – more importantly – the promising advent of a multitude of Ka-band competitors.
    5. NRTC’s members currently distribute two competing Ku-band high-speed satellite Internet services: EchoStar’s StarBand Communications, Inc., and HNS’s DIRECWAY. Rural subscribers today can access streaming video over Ku-band satellite Internet services at data rates up to 400 kbps downstream, which provides significantly superior quality when compared to streaming media from dial-up or ISDN lines. In addition, rural viewers can receive combined DBS video and High-Speed satellite Internet services over the same dish.
    6. Even more promising, however, are the next-generation Ka-band technologies that promise to offer video/broadband capabilities at much faster speeds. Within the last few years, twenty-one Ka-band licensees have been authorized by the FCC to provide a wide variety of broadband interactive, video and Internet services to all areas of the United States, including under-served and rural areas. Continually improving upstream speeds in the Ka-band, compared to 128 kbps for current Ku-band systems, should promote the deployment of satellite broadband services throughout the country.
    7. While satellite technology is the most effective way to reach remote areas of the country, we recognize that landline technologies will compete with satellite Internet/video in some rural areas. Several Silicon Valley companies and other technology developers worldwide already offer IP-based digital head end systems that may support combined video-on-demand/High-Speed Internet services over broadband copper, fiber and hybrid fiber coaxial infrastructures.
    8. NRTC believes that a multifaceted competitive approach will best ensure that rural Americans are fully served. The NTIA has advocated this same principle of diversity in facilities-based providers, finding that "there is probably not one technological ‘silver bullet.’ Providing broadband service to rural America will likely require a combination of . . . technologies." NRTC also agrees with the NTIA’s conclusion that "competition can accelerate the diffusion of broadband applications."
    9. To achieve widespread deployment of broadband services, the NTIA should promote facilities-based competition. A multitude of competitive providers throughout the country will best ensure universal access to broadband.

  1. The NTIA Should Encourage the FCC to Revise the Definition of Broadband to Include Services Capable of Delivering Transmission Speeds of 200 Kbps or Greater in Either Direction.
    1. While NRTC is encouraged by the extent of broadband technologies available today – and on the horizon – current regulatory definitions may inadvertently hinder their deployment. The FCC’s definitions of "advanced telecommunications capability" (more than 200 kbps in each direction) and "advanced services" (more than 200 kbps in at least one direction) are important benchmarks that Congress and federal agencies often use to define "broadband."
    2. Although the FCC has established its own definitions of broadband, in a recent speech to the National Summit on Broadband Deployment, Chairman Powell stated that a "uniformly accepted definition evades us." The FCC’s inability to date to establish a uniformly accepted definition has adversely affected the development of policies to promote advanced services.
    3. For example, the RUS uses the FCC’s definition of advanced telecommunications capability in administrating a loan guarantee program for rural telecommunications companies deploying high-speed Internet services. On the other hand, some pending legislation specifies no upstream minimum, while other legislation defines broadband by setting specific transmission rates.
    4. The currently competing Ku-band services, DIRECWAY and StarBand, meet the definition of advanced service but may not meet the FCC/RUS definition of advanced telecommunications capability. Where available, digital subscriber line (DSL) services also may not qualify for RUS support under the current eligibility requirements.
    5. Although providing service to rural customers poses numerous challenges (population density, terrain, etc.), respondents to NTCA’s membership survey indicated that they have made impressive progress toward the FCC’s call for ubiquitous advanced services in all regions of the country. Sixty percent of respondents’ residential customers were able to order at least 200 kbps downstream data from their provider, thereby meeting the advanced services’ one-way requirement.
    6. While virtually all of the NTCA survey respondents acknowledged the importance of broadband technology to their future business development, several cited the lack of affordable loans for "last-mile" customers as a significant hindrance. In fact, sixty-three percent of the respondents cited the cost of deployment as the major barrier to offering broadband service in their telephone service area.
    7. It is imperative that government policies and funding decisions promote facilities-based competition to solve these types of problems. The NTIA should clarify as a matter of national policy that speed is important, but not of paramount importance in defining broadband services. In the coming years, as a result of competition from a multitude of new Ka-band satellite providers, data rates will exceed 200 kbps in both directions. Meanwhile, we need an opportunity to transition smoothly from the existing Ku-band and other broadband services.

  1. Current Generation Technologies Offer the Smooth Transition to Packet Switching and an Opportunity to Gain Experience With Rural Broadband Businesses.
    1. The Notice asks about specific problems encountered with respect to the deployment of broadband services via satellite. In their efforts to establish Ku-band satellite service, NRTC and its members are gathering valuable experience and finding innovative ways to improve their service offerings. As of today, NRTC members in 26 states offer HSI. More members are considering the product in additional states.
    2. Many aspects of the rural high-speed satellite Internet business – installation, service contracts, warranties, distribution agreements, and equipment delivery procedures – require new approaches as we ask rural America to explore this new service. Our experience to date is informative.
    3. For example, service installation and authorization is proving to be one of the most complex aspects of the satellite Internet business. The installer must adjust the dish to an exact position in order to receive data streams from the Ku-band satellites. The task, therefore, requires a professional installer. NRTC’s HSI members must find ways to recruit and train installers quickly in order to serve consumers scattered over large geographic areas. Within a few weeks of launching its DIRECWAY business in August 2001, one NRTC member, 3 Rivers Telecommunications ("3 Rivers") in Fairfield, Montana, found a way to build and deploy a force of 40 trained installers throughout the state.
    4. The West Florida Electric Cooperative ("West Florida"), located on Florida’s Panhandle, deployed DIRECWAY satellite Internet services over an area even greater than 3 Rivers’. Upon completing NRTC’s HSI training, West Florida’s manager of Internet services crafted a distance learning solution for a religious organization with private schools located throughout the country. Today, West Florida has 20 satellite Internet sites installed, and about half of them are in small town schools throughout the nation.
    5. Rural providers offering Ku-band services are pioneering the satellite Internet business. They are dealing with the problems facing satellite Internet providers in rural America and are establishing business models that will be field-tested and expanded to include the Ka-band carriers of the future. In the meantime, they are delivering high-speed services where the demand exists today.

  1. Conclusion.
    1. The NTIA can promote its goal of universal broadband access through fostering competitive broadband services from a multitude of providers. Currently competing Ku-band satellite providers are offering the first step in the provision of broadband services to rural America, while a host of competitive satellite Internet carriers may soon be able to operate with greater bandwidths via Ka-band satellites. If a multitude of Ka-band providers emerge, rural homes could gain access to new high-speed services even before some urban areas have access to extensive fiber networks, fixed wireless or mobile networks.
    2. Over time, new services are expected to perform well in excess of the FCC’s current definition of "advanced telecommunications capability." Unless and until competitive services are readily available in rural areas, however, NRTC urges the NTIA to abandon rigid definitions of broadband and to focus instead on formulating policies that foster facilities-based broadband competition from a multitude of providers.

Respectfully Submitted,

Steven T. Berman, Senior Vice President

Business Affairs and General Counsel

Adam D. Schwartz, Vice President

External Affairs



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December 19, 2001