[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 52 (Friday, March 16, 2012)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 15564-15565]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-6420]


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DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Rural Utilities Service

7 CFR Part 1735

RIN 0572-AC24


Expansion of 911 Access Loans and Loan Guarantees

AGENCY: Rural Utilities Service, USDA.

ACTION: Affirmation of interim rule as final rule.

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SUMMARY: The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is adopting as a final rule, 
without change, an interim rule to implement the Expansion of 911 as 
authorized by Section 315 of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (RE 
Act) as provided for in Section 6107 of the Food, Conservation, and 
Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill). The interim rule codified the 
Secretary's authority to make loans in five areas of eligibility to 
expand or improve 911 access and integrated emergency communications 
systems in rural areas for the Telecommunications Loan Program.

DATES: Effective on March 16, 2012, we are adopting as a final rule the 
interim rule published at 76 FR 56091-56094 on September 12, 2011.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: David Villano, Assistant 
Administrator, Telecommunications Program, USDA--Rural Utilities 
Service, 1400 Independence Avenue SW., STOP 1590, Room 5151-S, 
Washington, DC 20250-1590. Telephone number: (202) 720-9554, Facsimile: 
(202) 720-0810.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

A. Introduction

    The Agency improves the quality of life in rural America by 
providing investment capital for deployment of rural telecommunications 
infrastructure. Financial assistance is provided to rural utilities; 
municipalities; commercial corporations; limited liability companies; 
public utility districts; Indian tribes; and cooperative, nonprofit, 
limited-dividend, or mutual associations. In order to achieve the goal 
of increasing economic opportunity in rural America, the Agency 
finances infrastructure that enables access to a seamless, nationwide 
telecommunications network. With access to the same advanced 
telecommunications networks as its urban counterparts, especially 
broadband networks designed to accommodate distance learning, telework, 
and telemedicine, rural America will eventually see improving 
educational opportunities, health care, economies, safety and security, 
and ultimately higher employment. The Agency shares the assessment of 
Congress, State and local officials, industry representatives, and 
rural residents that broadband service is a critical component to the 
future of rural America and modern emergency communications 
capabilities are critical to the safety and security of all Americans. 
The Agency is committed to ensuring that rural America will have access 
to affordable, reliable, telecommunications and broadband services and 
to provide a healthy, safe, and prosperous place to live and work.

B. Regulatory History

    Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, 
significant Congressional attention was placed on weaknesses in the 
nation's emergency communications capabilities. The ability of rural 
communities, carriers and emergency responders to keep up with changing 
communications technologies was and continues to be a concern of 
emergency response professionals. Interoperability; or the ability of 
emergency responders from various agencies and jurisdictions to 
communicate with each other is also a pressing national need.
    In 2002, the Congress gave the RUS statutory authority to ``to 
expand or improve 911 access and integrated emergency communications 
systems in rural areas'' in section 315 of the RE Act (6102 of the 2002 
Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002). No

[[Page 15565]]

regulations were ever proposed to implement that section.
    In 2008, the Congress re-authorized section 315 of the RE Act and 
added language to further define eligible loan purposes. It also 
clarified that projects could be funded from appropriations made to the 
RUS telecommunications program.
    In 2011, the President launched a major initiative to use wireless 
4G technology to create a nation-wide interoperable emergency 
communications network. The plan contemplates using dual-use 4G 
wireless technologies in rural areas to address public safety and 
private sector communications needs.
    Rural areas face significant challenges in deploying emergency 
communications systems. The 911 Program Office housed within the 
National Transportation Safety Administration specifically noted that 
``(r)ural and tribal 911 centers face special challenges. They 
typically serve areas that are large geographically but less-densely 
populated than urban areas. Because it may take first responders longer 
to reach the scene of an emergency, call-takers in public safety 
answering points (PSAPs) serving rural areas may be required to stay on 
the phone longer with callers or provide more extensive emergency 
instruction to callers until help arrives. And in medical emergencies, 
hospitals are often farther away which results in extended transport 
times, making the ambulance unavailable for other calls in its response 
area--in areas that may have very limited coverage to begin with. The 
limited responder resources typical of rural areas can be more quickly 
overwhelmed in disasters or large-scale incidents.'' The program office 
went on to observe that ``supporting rural PSAPs is vitally important, 
particularly because it may take longer for help to arrive in rural 
areas, and the call-taker may make an even bigger difference in the 
outcome of an emergency situation.'' (see http://www.911.gov/911-issues/challenges.html).
    The sixty-minute period immediately following a traumatic injury, 
like an injury resulting from a car crash is known as the ``golden 
hour.'' The risks of death or permanent injury increase dramatically if 
medical attention is not given within that first hour. In rural 
America, distance and sparse population work against the quick 
discovery and treatment of injuries resulting from an individual or 
mass emergency. In rural areas the ability to reach a person in 
distress can be the difference between life and death or recovery and 
disability.
    Congress twice enacted section 315 to give the RUS flexible 
financial tools to help rural communities, service providers and 
governmental entities address their emergency communications needs. By 
giving clear loan authority to the agency, RUS would have the tools to 
leverage public and private resources to speed the rural deployment of 
a dual-use public safety/commercial wireless network, address homeland 
security communications needs along America's rural international 
borders; finance enhanced 911 capabilities for carriers and communities 
to precisely locate a rural wireless call to 911 or to finance next-gen 
911 upgrades which would allow citizens to contact 911 via text message 
or send to emergency responders cell phone photos or short videos of a 
crime scene or accident location. E911 location accuracy requirements 
pose unique challenges for rural wireless carriers. The new authority 
would give the agency clear authority to finance wireless upgrades 
which relate to public safety and security, even if it does not finance 
the entire wireless communications systems.
    Without this authority, RUS would be very limited in its ability to 
make financing available to address specific rural emergency 
communications needs. Without this authority, the RUS 
telecommunications statute would generally prohibit the agency from 
financing municipal investments.
    As a loan program which must meet the rigorous financial and 
engineering feasibility requirements, the agency expects no impact on 
its subsidy rate.
    RUS has conducted extensive tribal consultations in 2010 and 2011 
related to implementation of new authorities for substantially 
underserved trust areas. Through those consultations, the agency had 
discussions with tribal leaders on the entire portfolio of RUS 
programs. This authority could be useful in addressing some of the 
emergency communications needs raised by tribal leaders in some of 
those discussions. Tribal areas are among the regions of the United 
States with the least connectivity to 911 and other emergency 
communications systems.
    The regulation would simply codify the authority contained in 
section 315 of the RE Act.

C. Rule Changes

    The amendment to 7 CFR part 1735 implements Section 315 of the 
Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (RE Act) as provided in Section 6107 
of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 by clarifying that 
the expansion of 911 access & integrated interoperable emergency 
communications systems are eligible purposes of the RE Act.
    Section 6107 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 
added Section 315 of RE Act to clearly authorize the RUS to make loans 
for the following purposes:
    (1) 911 access;
    (2) Integrated interoperable emergency communications, including 
multiuse networks that provide commercial or transportation information 
services in addition to emergency communications services;
    (3) Homeland security communications;
    (4) Transportation safety communications; or
    (5) Location technologies used outside an urbanized area.
    The provision also clarified that the Agency could consider State 
or local 911 fees to be security for a loan under this section and that 
loans may be made in certain circumstances to an emergency 
communication equipment provider to accomplish the purposes of this 
section where a State or municipality may be prohibited from incurring 
debt.
    Comments on the interim rule were required to be received on or 
before November 14, 2011. We received one comment supporting the 
amendments to 7 CFR part 1735 by that date. Therefore, for the reasons 
given in the interim rule, we are adopting the interim rule as a final 
rule without change.
    This action also affirms information contained in the interim rule 
concerning Executive Order 12866 and the Regulatory Flexibility Act, 
Executive Order 12988, and the Paperwork Reduction Act. Further, for 
this action, the Office of Management and Budget has waived its review 
under Executive Order 12866.

List of Subjects in 7 CFR Part 1735

    Loan programs--communications, Reporting and recordkeeping 
requirements, Rural areas, Telephone.

PART 1735--GENERAL POLICIES, TYPES OF LOANS, LOAN REQUIREMENTS--
TELECOMMUNICATIONS PROGRAM

    Accordingly, we are adopting as a final rule, without change, the 
interim rule that amended 7 CFR part 1735 and that was published at 76 
FR 56091 on September 12, 2011.

    Dated: February 24, 2012.
James R. Newby,
Acting Administrator, Rural Utilities Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-6420 Filed 3-15-12; 8:45 am]
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