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The US is overhauling dozens of policies to promote high-speed internet access

Twenty federal agencies are overhauling their policies to promote the deployment of broadband internet across the US. The changes range from allowing community recreation centers to tap into a $2.3 billion program to pay for high-speed internet, to collecting more data on who is and who isn't able to access broadband, to making it easier for service providers to lay cables beneath federal lands.

$10 billion in funding is being opened to broadband deployment

The actions come as a result of the Broadband Opportunity Council's first report on expanding access to high-speed internet, which is being released today. The council was formed by President Obama earlier this year, with the goal of ensuring that the federal government is doing everything within its current powers to encourage the deployment of broadband. That means there are no new funding programs here, but existing sources of funding are being opened up and barriers to deployment are being brought down.

The council's report includes a series of recommendations that federal agencies have committed to following. Broadly, they focus on modernizing funding programs to allow for investments in high-speed internet, helping communities promote private sector broadband investment, expanding access to federal lands and resources, and collecting new data on broadband deployment.

"Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility," the council writes, "however, not all federal programs fully reflect" that change. It's instructing all government agencies to amend relevant programs so that their resources can be used to make investments in the rollout of high-speed internet. The council estimates that up to $10 billion worth of federal programs will be opened up through these actions, though of course only a portion of that will end up being used for broadband.

The government intends to consolidate its resources to improve access to funds, land, and information

The updated funding programs are generally meant to support projects like community facilities, rural communications, and health centers. In other instances, broadband isn't gaining eligibility for federal funding but becoming a requirement of projects benefitting from federal funding. The Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to begin requiring that most new residential projects it funds include plans for broadband support; units undergoing major renovation will be required to include broadband plans, too.

To make sure that towns and cities are aware of these programs, the Commerce Department has committed to creating a "portal" that'll round up the grants and programs available to assist with broadband deployment. Basically, a local organization should be able to visit its portal and find information on all federal funding as well as best practices for actually getting cables in the ground and usable. That includes encouraging communities to adopt "dig once" policies, which allow fiber or other cables to be laid when digging is done for unrelated projects.

Consolidating federal resources is another focus here. The council is also recommending that agencies get together to align on requirements for laying cables on federal land or historic sites. The intention is to reduce the time and cost on internet providers that want to deploy infrastructure on federal land, which may be a necessity in certain areas — particularly in locations where infrastructure is already lacking.

Cost and lack of infrastructure still prevent access

Though the administration has been working to see broadband adoption grow across the country, a quarter of all households remained without high-speed internet — now defined as 25Mbps — as of 2012. Those without access are typically among more vulnerable groups, like senior citizens and people with lower incomes. Price is often a factor in their lack of access, but missing infrastructure may be a reason, too. Less than half of rural households have access to internet with broadband speeds; the figure is even lower on tribal lands.

"The hard work that remains is reaching those communities where geography and economics work against deployment and reaching individuals who do not yet have the same opportunities to use broadband to meet personal and professional goals," the council writes. This is also where the council's recommendations for further research come in. The National Science Foundation will lead research that may look into, among other subjects, the remaining barriers to broadband deployment and the economics of its deployment in rural and remote areas.

In total, the council's report highlights 36 actions that federal agencies are committing to taking, with timelines set out for each of them that stretch across the next 18 months. The council intends to keep working with agencies to see that these actions are implemented, while continuing to look for ways that the government can increase broadband deployment. Notably, some major actions can only be taken by the FCC — an independent agency — and therefore aren't covered in this report; but the FCC has been taking its own actions too, including modernizing its Lifeline program to subsidize high-speed internet for low-income households.