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FCC Approves Rural|Internet Experiments

WASHINGTON (CN) - In an attempt to bring updated, affordable internet and phone services to rural and tribal communities, the Federal Communications Commission approved a series of experiments to help fund faster networks in those areas.

As technology develops, communication systems nationwide are transitioning to cable, wireless and fiber optic networks. Many rural areas still use antiquated technology, which the FCC says it plans to change.

The commission issued a regulation Friday adopting "a diverse set of experiments and data collection initiatives" that, among other things will solicit proposals to bring updated communication services to rural parts of the country, where such systems have historically been expensive.

The rule summarized an order and report adopted by the commission in January to "kickstart the process" of the experiments.

"Americans have come to expect secure, reliable, and innovative communications services," the commission wrote. "The purpose of these experiments is to speed market-driven technological transitions and innovations by preserving the core statutory values as codified by Congress--public safety, ubiquitous and affordable access, competition, and consumer protection--that exist today."

In one experiment, money from the commission's Connect America Fund would be available to create high-speed IP networks in rural areas, including on tribal land. Connect America, announced in 2010, is the commission's plan to improve internet access nationwide, with the specific goal of providing 100 million households with fast ethernet access.

The commission said that experiment is intended to help inform policy decisions moving forward.

The commission also invited communications providers to submit proposals that would test changes in technology. That invitation will happen in two stages: first, the commission will solicit non-binding expressions of interest, and then a formal proposal.

Interested parties can submit their expressions of interest by March 7, but the commission will consider others "on a rolling basis."

"One of the critical questions the commission seeks to explore is under what conditions will consumers prefer next generation wireless services over wireline alternatives," the commission wrote.

"In addition, the commission wants to better understand the viable business models that could support the deployment of fiber or other next generation wired technology in rural areas despite the challenges we have described."

Before soliciting formal proposals, the commission said it will adopt a budget for broadband experiments, and it seeks comments on how much of the Connect America Fund budget should be used for that experiment.

The rule is effective at the end of March, with the exception of a section that needs approval from the Office of Management and Budget.

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