Rocky Road on FCC Vote to Establish Rural 5G Fund

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While the vote to open up the 6 GHz band to unlicensed wireless devices was controversial to some of those using the band now, FCC Commissioners were united in their opinion (see lede story.) But when it came to adopting rules to create a rural broadband fund, things got messier Thursday. The Commissioners were not united.

While the Commissioners agree rural areas desperately need broadband, they argued about how to best accomplish that goal, given the poor state of the agency’s broadband availability maps. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that passed seeks comment on how to create a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. It proposes to distribute up to $9 billion through the Universal Service Fund across rural America for 5G wireless broadband connectivity. In addition to 5G networks already coming online in urban and suburban areas, the Commission conditioned approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint transaction on T-Mobile’s commitment to deploy its 5G network to 90 percent of rural Americans.

The Notice proposes to make available up to $8 billion in Phase I to support deployment of 5G networks in rural areas that are unlikely to see timely deployment without this support or as part of the T-Mobile transaction deployment commitments.  The second phase would target at least $1 billion in support to bring wireless connectivity to harder to serve and higher cost areas, including farms and ranches, to help facilitate adoption of connected precision agriculture technologies.

The 5G Fund for Rural America would use a competitive reverse auction format to award funding for wireless broadband services. The Notice seeks comment on two different approaches to identifying eligible areas for the Phase I reverse auction:  One approach would hold an auction in 2021 by defining eligible areas based on current data sources that identify areas as particularly rural and thus in the greatest need of universal service support. It would prioritize funding to areas that have historically lacked 4G LTE or even 3G service.

An alternative option would delay the 5G Fund Phase I auction until at least 2023, after collecting and processing improved mobile broadband coverage data through the Commission’s new Digital Opportunity Data Collection project.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voted for the item, though he has reservations that need to be worked out. He said overall, it “seeks to forge a path for the mess that was the mobility fund,” referring to the agency previously awarding money for buildout without first determining exactly where broadband is and is not.

Commissioner Brendan Carr and Chairman Ajit Pai also voted for the NPRM. During the vote, Carr said he’s pleased the Commission is asking for public input on how to include “the best available data or wait until improved mapping information is available.”

Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks split their votes, approving in part and dissenting in part. They believe the maps need to be fixed first or the FCC will repeat past mistakes. But the new effort has “serious flaws,” Rosenworcel said during the vote.

“We are not just ignoring the problems of mapping but at risk of making the same mistakes. This 5G rulemaking presents a false choice. It suggests we can either provide funds for more wireless service fast or we can do it accurately. That is crazy. We need to do both.”

Rosenworcel explained: “We can do two things at once and work fast and base our efforts on facts. We need maps before money, and data before deployment, because that’s what Congress told us to do,” when the Broadband Data Act was signed into law last month.

Pai said there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. “We will have to decide whether enhanced precision justifies a significant delay as much as two additional years.”

Asked about the money versus data problem after the meeting, Pai told reporters the bill didn’t authorize money for the effort to improve maps. “We need money before maps. We can’t fulfill the requirements of the Broadband Data Act without more funding.” Indeed he testified this to Congress in March, Inside Towers reported.

Reaction in the telecom world was mixed.

NATE was pleased with the outcome. “Looking ahead, the establishment of the 5G Fund will be great news for NATE member contractor companies and their skilled technicians who will be playing a major role working alongside the wireless carriers to close the digital divide by deploying the communications tower infrastructure, equipment and technology essential to enable high-speed, next-generation mobile service to rural and unserved areas,” stated Director of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Jim Goldwater. “NATE believes the 5G Fund will represent a major economic stimulus into rural America and ultimately serve as a job creator for professional jobs available in our industry and many other sectors.”

However, the Competitive Carriers Association has consistently said the maps need to be fixed before money is dispersed. Thursday, the association reiterated that. CCA President Steve Berry was encouraged that Commissioners O’Rielly, Rosenworcel, and Starks all expressed concerns.

But Berry called the decision, “nothing short of disappointing.” He said, “There is no reason why we should limit ourselves to two inadequate options; we can, and should, do both – collect reliable data and distribute much-needed funds to areas in-need. At a time when consumers and businesses are more dependent on broadband services than ever before, we should be exploring every option to accelerate deployment of mobile broadband as quickly as possible.”

“Rather than limiting ourselves to two false options, the FCC should focus on updating their data collection in line with the parameters contained in the Broadband DATA Act, as directed by Congress,” said Berry. “Every member of Congress knows the areas of their district that do and do not have sufficient service, and this important legislation was enacted to help address this real dilemma. In this day-and-age, mobile broadband is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but an essential component of everyday life. Competitive carriers are working tirelessly every day to provide the most robust services to their consumers, but it is very concerning that the FCC’s decision does not present the best path forward to deploying next-generation technologies as quickly as possible.”

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