FCC Creates 5G Fund For Rural America

On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a report and order to establish its 5G Fund for Rural America, as it announced earlier in the week in a press release. This fund will “distribute $9 billion over the next decade to bring 5G wireless broadband connectivity to rural America.” The FCC noted that this fund will use “multi-round reverse auctions in two phases to target support from the Universal Service Fund to eligible areas for improved mobile broadband coverage” based on the FCC’s findings from the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative. The FCC said the move is the next step to secure U.S. 5G leadership, close the digital divide and bring economic opportunities to rural areas.

The first phase will provide up to $8 billion to support rural areas that do not have unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G broadband; the FCC has set aside $680 million for service to Tribal lands, which builds on the FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Window. As previously mentioned, eligible areas will be determined using the information obtained through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative. The FCC stated that this would “allow[ ] the Commission to more efficiently target funding to areas of the country where support is most needed, while ensuring support is spent as efficiently as possible.” Meanwhile, the second phase will provide at least $1 billion in addition to any funds not awarded in the first phase to target deploying 5G networks to “facilitate precision agriculture.”

Additionally, the FCC noted that this auction will take T-Mobile’s 5G deployment commitment “to cover 90% of rural Americans with its 5G network within six years” into account in order to avoid spending federal funds on a repetitive venture via “wasteful overbuilding.” Moreover, the FCC claimed that it will use an adjustment factor to make sure that hard-to-serve areas, such as “those with rugged terrain or sparse populations, can compete in the auction.” The FCC is requiring those who are awarded funding from this 5G fund “to deploy networks providing 5G mobile broadband at speeds of at least 35/3 Mbps” and meet interim and final deployment milestones. Beginning in 2021, the FCC will also require carriers that are receiving legacy support for high cost mobile to begin spending an increasing amount of their $382 million in support to bring 5G to high cost rural areas.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated, “This Commission has taken decisive action to cement United States leadership in 5G…But as we enter the 5G era, we need to make sure that rural Americans aren’t left behind. 5G can’t be a technology that only benefits those in urban and suburban areas; that would only broaden rather than narrow the digital divide.”

“Instead of looking backwards and connecting rural communities with 4G LTE, we should look to the future and ensure that rural Americans have 5G on an equal footing with their urban counterparts. These networks will bring rural Americans the benefits—like increased access to healthcare, education, and precision agriculture—promised by the improved speed, latency, and security of 5G. So today, less than a year after I proposed it, we’re establishing the 5G Fund for Rural America,” Pai added.

Approving in part and dissenting in part, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel stated, “Let’s start with the positive. The agency saw clearly that without good mapping data, it couldn’t have confidence its universal service funds for wireless communications would be deployed in the communities that need them most. So today we commit to a new course for wireless universal service support that will ensure we have accurate data and better maps before we commit billions in support.”

“But I am gobsmacked at our failure to attend to the other half of the digital divide—and that’s adoption. Remember that three to four times as many households outside of rural areas have no broadband at home. But we have no new initiatives, no new funding proposals, no new policies to address the millions of children locked out of the virtual classroom. This cruel pandemic has revealed the hard truth that our nation’s digital divide is very real and very big. It’s time for a greater sense of urgency in every way to fix it,” Rosenworcel said.

Commissioner Brendan Carr, who supported the establishment of the fund, stated, “the item we adopt today moves in the right direction. For a start, it builds off of other successful programs, since providers can use existing support to build fixed networks that support 5G. ”