Rural Associations Propose 5G Fund Pre-Auction Payments for Legacy Carriers

Randy Sukow


NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, in comments to the FCC last week, proposed a plan to allow certain rural mobile phone providers to draw funding from the new $9 billion 5G Fund without having to participate in a reverse auction. These “legacy” providers, who in the past built 3G and 4G services using the Commission’s earlier Mobility Fund, would in return promise to upgrade their facilities to 5G.

“These existing providers have been good stewards of universal service funds and should be encouraged to continue the work of bringing advanced mobile services to rural areas,” NTCA wrote in its filing. “Leveraging these existing networks is also efficient in that it takes advantage of existing assets that can be upgraded for better levels of service and … would help to promote 5G availability in the most deeply rural areas that are least likely to see otherwise any renewed investment in mobility anytime soon.”

Earlier this year, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggesting two approaches to a future 5G reverse auction. Option A, reminiscent of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction plan, would schedule a Phase I auction in 2021 for areas known to lack 5G. A Phase II auction would begin perhaps by 2023 after the Commission develops precise 5G coverage maps. Option B would delay auctions until all mapping is complete.

NTCA’s plan calls for taking $1.5 billion from the $9 billion 5G Fund budget and applying it to the legacy providers. Eligible providers would be those with 500,000 or fewer subscribers in remote areas, as defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural-Urban Commuting Areas (RUCAs) five through 10. NTCA then proposes an auction for the remaining $8.5 billion after the Commission completes the coverage maps. The association also proposes an accelerated schedule to complete mapping by June 2022.

The Rural Wireless Association (RWA) offers a similar proposal, also calling for pre-auction payments, which it calls “Phase 0,” beginning in 2021. “The amount of support a provider would receive from the 5G plan would be based on what the provider currently receives for customers in the rural RUCAs … with an upward adjustment for the 5G upgrade,” it says in its comments. Like NTCA, RWA would limit support to RUCAs 5-10. It would then begin a Phase I reverse auction in 2021 and Phase II “as early as” 2024.

“Adoption of the RWA proposal will provide small rural carriers the certainty needed to begin deploying 5G immediately in areas where no 5G exists today and where 5G is unlikely to be deployed without 5G Fund support,” it said.

coalition of seven rural wireless carriers filed support for Option B, but with a faster timetable. It calls for setting a Dec. 31, 2021, deadline for completing all coverage mapping and beginning the 5G Fund reverse auction by second quarter 2022.

“Under this third way, the 5G Fund auction would be delayed one year, or perhaps 15 months.  Taking this extra time to improve mapping resources serves the public interest because support will be invested far more efficiently than it would using FCC Form 477,” the coalition said.

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