The Connect America Fund is now offering carriers nearly $1.7 billion to expand and support broadband service in rural areas of the country where market forces alone cannot support deployment.

The offer to the rural operations of the largest telecom providers – known as price cap carriers – would provide ongoing support for networks that can deliver broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps uploads to nearly nine million rural residents nationwide.

The funding represents a 71 percent increase from current funding for these areas, but doesn’t increase the size of the Universal Service Fund – or increasing ratepayer fees, according to the Federal Communication Commission.

“Today’s offer of $1.675 billion for rural broadband deployment will connect millions of rural Americans who lack access to modern high-speed Internet service,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a prepared statement. “The Connect America Fund is tackling the rural digital divide so that all Americans can have access to the jobs, education and opportunities provided by broadband, no matter where they live.”

Carriers now have 120 days to determine whether or not to accept the funding on a state-by-state basis. In states where carriers decline the offer, the subsidies will be offered to providers on a competitive basis.

According to the FCC’s latest Broadband Progress Report, nearly one in three rural Americans lack access to 10/1 broadband as compared to only one in 100 urban Americans.

The FCC’s traditional universal service program succeeded in ensuring telephone network coverage in rural America. In 2011, the FCC modernized the program to support networks capable of providing broadband and voice services, and created the Connect America Fund to administer that support.

Since then, Phase I of Connect America has provided $438 million to expand broadband to nearly 1.7 million people in more than 637,000 homes and businesses in 45 states and Puerto Rico. Over the next six years, Phase II of the program aims to provide more than $10 billion to expand broadband-capable networks throughout rural America.

Carriers who receive this support must build out broadband to 40 percent of funded locations by the end 2017, 60 percent by end of 2018, and 100 percent by the end of 2020.

Presidential Broadband Council Seeks Public Input

In other broadband news this week, the President’s interagency Broadband Opportunity Council (BOC) is seeking public comment on how federal agencies can promote broadband deployment, adoption and competition.

In a request for comment, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce – which are co-chairing the BOC – are asking the public for input in helping to identify regulations and other barriers hampering deployment of broadband. The request also is seeking recommendations on ways to promote public and private investment in broadband and get a better understanding of the challenges facing areas that lack access to broadband.

The Council was established by President Obama in March. It is comprised of 25 federal agencies.

Comments can be submitted through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by June 10.