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Commission Reconsiders LEOs on RDOF Low-latency Tier

Randy Sukow / Jun 9, 2020

The FCC this morning finalized the final procedures for the Phase I Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF) reverse auction and made it official that the auction will begin on Oct. 29. In adopting the Public Notice, the Commission also reversed its policy blocking certain bidders from the auction’s gigabit/low-latency tiers. Low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellite broadband providers and other non-fiber technologies will have a slight chance for eligibility to bid in the high-performance tiers, which would significantly improve their chances for obtaining RDOF support

“At the request of one of my commissioners, we don’t entirely close the door on low earth orbit satellite providers bidding in a low-latency tier,” said Chairman Ajit Pai. The text of a preliminary draft of the order included such a restriction on LEOs and all other forms of satellite broadband. “The Commission staff will conduct a careful, case-by-case review of applications to ensure that bidders will be able to meet required performance obligations.”

Staff will review all requests to bid in the high-performance tiers following the short-form application window, which opens July 1-15.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was the one who intervened with Pai to get better terms for satellite and other providers. “One of the key principles that I’ve sought to advance in both the auction context and elsewhere is the concept of technology neutrality. Markets, not the government, are best situated to pick winning and losing technologies and we undermine innovation and inefficiency when we engage in central planning and regulatory favoritism,” O’Rielly said during the meeting.

Last week, NRTC satellite broadband partner Viasat announced that it was changing from a mid-earth orbiting strategy to a LEO strategy for future satellite launches. It cited FCC latency policies as a reason for the change. Most NRTC electric and telco members planning to participate in the auction are submitting fiber-only and hybrid fiber/fixed wireless plans. They likely will be eligible to bid in the gigabit tier for many census blocks across the nation.

The RDOF auction procedures passed with three commissioners in favor and two – Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks – partially dissenting. Both objected to going forward with the auction this year and called for a delay until the Commission has developed more accurate coverage maps.

However, Starks backed O’Rielly’s call for technology neutrality and opening LEO opportunities. “Next-generation satellite broadband holds tremendous technological promise for addressing the digital divide and is led by strong American companies with a lengthy record of success,” he said. “I believe the commission staff should evaluate the applications on their own merits.”

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In recent months under COVID-19 guidelines, the FCC has been holding its monthly open meetings via conference call. This morning’s meeting was the first to use a videoconferencing platform. Those pictured during the RDOF procedures presentation include: top row, l-r, Commissioners Brendan Carr, O’Rielly and Rosenworcel; second row, Michael Janson, director of the FCC's Rural Broadband Auctions Task Force, FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch, and FCC attorney Mark Montano; bottom row, Commissioner Starks, FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson Jr. and Chairman Pai.