Pai to Create Rural $9B 5G Fund

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai intends to establish a 5G Fund for rural America. It would make up to $9 billion in Universal Service Fund support available to carriers to deploy advanced 5G mobile wireless services in rural areas. The money would be allocated through a reverse auction and target hard-to-serve areas with sparse populations and/or rugged terrain. At least $1 billion would be set aside specifically for precision agriculture deployments. 

In order for rural areas to see the same benefits from 5G as urban areas, “the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow,” said Pai in announcing the fund Wednesday. Pai has seen that farms and ranches have unique wireless connectivity needs, which is why he intends to move forward as quickly as possible to establish the fund.

Agency staffers told reporters Wednesday the proposal would likely be ready in the New Year. Exactly where the money should be targeted is one of the questions the FCC will ask in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  

The 5G Fund would replace the planned Mobility Fund Phase II (MSII), which would have provided federal support for 4G LTE service in unserved areas. As part of the MSII rules, wireless carriers were required to submit 4G LTE coverage data so the agency would know where to target the money.  

The MSII challenge process gave stakeholders an opportunity to dispute the coverage maps by submitting speed tests to the Commission. But in a report released Wednesday, agency staff finds that the 4G LTE coverage data submitted by carriers “is not sufficiently reliable for the purpose of moving forward with Mobility Fund Phase II.”

Specifically, FCC staff conducted thousands of speed tests to measure network performance and concluded that the MFII coverage maps submitted by certain carriers likely overstated each provider’s actual coverage and did not reflect on-the-ground experience in many instances. The agency does not think the overstated coverage was deliberate, and “the FCC does not intend to take enforcement action” against carriers for MSII maps, the staffers said. 

The staff report recommends the Commission terminate the challenge process, audit the coverage filings of carriers in other proceedings before the Commission, and take additional steps to make sure that coverage data is accurate. Data files containing the approximately 25,000 speed tests taken by FCC staff and approximately 20 million speed tests taken by challengers are available for download here.  

NATE and NTCA praised the plan. NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway applauded the action: “This new fund is great news for NATE member contractors who will be playing a major role working alongside the wireless carriers to deploy the infrastructure, equipment and technology essential to enabling next-generation connectivity to all corners of the United States.”  

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, said, “Obtaining accurate maps for mobile wireless services has proven particularly vexing, and in just the past several months, the FCC adopted new provisions to develop better maps for fixed and mobile services alike through a combination of more precise technical standards for reporting and public stakeholder input and challenges. NTCA members are eager to continue leading the charge in deployment and delivery of advanced services in rural areas, and we hope that the availability of better coverage data and this shift in program objectives will ultimately promote increased investment in, and help sustain, robust rural wireless networks.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

December 5, 2019

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