FCC Proposes Launching $20B+ for Rural Broadband Amid Data Concerns

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Sparks didn’t fly among the FCC Commissioners Thursday as vigorously as they often do over an item to set the launch of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in motion. Yet there was still room to disagree over how fast the agency is working to distribute funds to broadband providers.

Chairman Ajit Pai announced the fund this spring alongside President Donald Trump.

 It will direct up to $20.4 billion over ten years to help providers build out broadband in unserved rural areas. The money is repurposed from existing subsidy dollars.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly lauded the effort, which he said, “takes necessary and appropriate steps to ensure unserved areas are prioritized.” He asked for extra financial incentives for providers to serve the hardest areas and is pleased those made it into the final Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  

Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks approved part of the item and disagreed with portions of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM). Rosenworcel said the agency needs to think about broadband the way regulators thought about rural electrification in the 1930’s and get the maps right first — before any funds are allocated. “There’s something fundamentally wrong in this rulemaking. It barely mentions a separate proceeding we’re voting on today for maps. This distributes [money] before any new data comes before this agency. Choosing where these funds go for the next ten years without accurate data is a problem.”  

Starks agreed, saying: “The quicker the time to auction, the less time to ensure the data is accurate. It appears to me the item is choosing speed over accuracy.”

“I strongly oppose this idea” of waiting, countered Pai. He said there’s no reason to deny broadband opportunities to Americans “whom we know lack access. The FCC has defined broadband as 25 Mpbs (download) for some time. We are proposing to get more broadband to more Americans, faster” by making more areas eligible for support and requiring faster service than last year’s Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II reverse auction, said Pai.

In the NPRM, the FCC seeks comment on proposals to:

  • Make eligible for support any price cap area currently receiving CAF Phase II model based support but lacking broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream, as well as the areas un-awarded in the CAF Phase II auction.
  • Make additional homes and businesses eligible for support by including areas that remain unserved, despite previous expectations that they would be served without subsidies due to estimated lower costs.
  • Raise the standard for broadband deployment from the CAF’s 10 Mbps/1 Mbps minimum to at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, with incentives for faster speeds.
  • Allocate support through a multi-round reverse auction like that used in last year’s CAF Phase II auction. In that auction, competition reduced the cost of reaching over 700,000 unserved homes and businesses from the $5 billion auction reserve price to $1.488 billion.  Comments? Email Us.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

August 2, 2019     

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