Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Foul-up May Cost FCC Broadband Control
September 10, 2021 | by Andrew Regitsky
2021 has been a tough year for the FCC. The agency has been stuck in neutral with four commissioners because President Biden has never nominated a third Democrat or, for that matter, a new chairman. This has caused the agency to concentrate its efforts on non-partisan issues such as network safety and improving broadband maps. Left for later are controversial issues such as net neutrality and Internet conduct and pricing. Recently, the Commission has largely focused on broadband deployment and support, therefore, it must have come as a shock to see the pending Infrastructure Act take broadband almost totally out of its hands.
Several weeks ago, the Senate approved the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which if passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President would allocate $65 billion to achieve the goal of universal broadband access. Surprisingly, the IIJA largely bypasses the FCC and instead requires the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Department to work with individual states to turn policy into specific actions. It's also unique because it would award broadband funds based on grants rather than the usual reverse auctions. The FCC’s sole role would consist of holding a proceeding to update the Universal Service Fund to ensure that broadband is supported in all rural areas.
According to the political website Axios, the FCC was bypassed in divvying up broadband funds for several reasons.
• The White House will be able to exert greater control over how the money is awarded if the Commerce Department is in charge rather than an independent agency like the FCC.
• Sources noted that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was a key player in the infrastructure negotiations.
• The FCC has also come under fire recently for how it handled awarding $9 billion for broadband in rural areas in 2020.
• What happened: Critics say the program, known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was rushed in order to begin before the end of the Trump administration. (Axios, August 25, 2021.)
For those unfamiliar with the RDOF, it was designed to bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack access. The FCC decided to hold a two-phase auction to allocate funds.
Phase I was held in October of 2020. It targeted over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that were completely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps.
Phase II will cover locations in census blocks that are partially served, as well as locations not funded in Phase I.
As mentioned above, Phase I did not go well, and that is an understatement! It has led to numerous waiver requests because some “unserved” areas had broadband service while other areas were uninhabited. Moreover, the qualifications of some of the winning bidders have come under questioning. Competitive Carriers Association CEO Steven Berry told Fierce Telecom on September 1, 2021, that the FCC’s problems were caused by its horrible Form 477 broadband maps. “You’ve got to get good maps and you need reliable data. And I hope that is the unambiguous prerequisite for any follow on RDOF [Phase 2 auction].”
A month ago, the FCC responded to criticism of its maps by unveiling new ones based on standardized metrics that are user friendly and useful. The maps were applauded by Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
Why does this map matter? This new map is a building block towards better broadband maps in the future. It serves as a public test of the standardized criteria developed to facilitate improved mapping under the Broadband DATA Act. Using standardized metrics and consumer-friendly technology and data visualization techniques, we’re able to take in data from multiple sources and create a map that is not only useful, but user-oriented. Consumers are able to input their address or another location and see with pin-point accuracy what coverage is available at that location.
The mapping tool shows where 4G LTE mobile broadband and voice services are available for each of the nation’s four largest wireless carriers: AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless. Combined, these four service providers represent the vast majority of market share for mobile wireless connections in the U.S. (August 6, 2021, blog of Jessica Rosenworcel).
Even with better maps, the question for the FCC going forward is will there even be Phase 2 of the RDOF? With so much new broadband funding coming from the IIJA, some believe the FCC is better using its remaining broadband funds to bolster network safety or aid 5G installation. Wherever it goes from here, the Commission can only blame itself for becoming largely irrelevant to the future of broadband deployment.