The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has updated the areas allowed to benefit from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which includes 5,392,530 unserved locations deemed eligible for the $16 billion Phase I Auction, the first leg of the plan. Thursday’s order updates the initial list from March. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a $20.4 billion fund that attempts to close the digital divide by funding the deployment of high-speed broadband networks to under served rural areas.
“We’re on track and on time with our ambitious schedule to move forward as quickly as possible to get funding out to unserved parts of America and close the digital divide,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. “We’ve designed this auction with incentives for bidders to build high performance networks in areas that we know don’t have broadband service so we can bring digital opportunity to millions of rural Americans. Closing the digital divide is my top priority, and it’s even more critical now as so much of American life has moved online.”
The limited challenge period allowed parties to identify census blocks that fell into one of the following categories: “(1) census blocks that have become served with voice and 25/3 Mbps broadband service since June 30, 2019; (2) census blocks that have been awarded funding by a federal or state broadband subsidy to offer broadband service at 25/3 Mbps or better and for which funding has already been paid or committed; and (3) census blocks within a rate-of-return carrier’s service area where it does not expect to extend broadband in satisfaction of its universal service deployment obligations.”
The FCC denied Frontier Communications’ challenge, for the “16,987 blocks where it claimed it provided service of 25/3 Mbps or better broadband service. Specifically, the FCC cited that there were “significant concerns in the record regarding the validity of Frontier’s filing,” for example the company’s admission that it misfiled its June 2019 data. Additionally, the FCC also denied FDF Communications’ challenge to exclude 1,664 Missouri census blocks and 577 Arkansas census blocks from the eligible areas because there “[s]ignificant concerns were raised in the record about the services that FDF Communications was offering in the areas it challenged.” The FCC rejected the challenges to exclude certain blocks from auction eligibility brought by Arrowhead Electric Cooperation, Inland Telephone Company, Northwest Fiber, Edge Broadband, Mobius Communications Company, and LakeNet LLC.
The FCC granted Charter Communication’s waiver request to exclude 2,127 New York census blocks from auction eligibility “because the company will deploy broadband in those locations pursuant to a settlement reached with the State of New York.” Granting this waiver will allow the funds to be used for other census blocks. The FCC also granted most of the FCC Form 477 filers submissions, which identified census blocks that began receiving voice and 25/3 Mbps or better broadband since June 30, 2019.
The eligible areas by state greatly vary; North Dakota has the lowest number eligible areas totaling 3,025 and California has the highest number of eligible areas totaling 425,533. Most states varied between tens of thousands of eligible areas to hundreds of thousands of eligible areas.
The FCC states that it will submit a final eligible area list at least three weeks before the October 29 auction. The FCC states that the “Commission staff will closely scrutinize auction applications to ensure that all applicants are proposing to use technologies that will be successful in providing mass market retail broadband to consumers to ensure taxpayer funding is not wasted.” Phase II will make at least $4.4 billion in funds available in addition to any unallocated Phase I funds. It will “target partially served areas using precise granular broadband coverage data” and areas not won in Phase I.