Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee today introduced a bill to allocate $6 billion in a bid to settle the rural broadband issue once and for all. His Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Act would allocate $6 billion for rural broadband in unserved areas to go on top of the $16.4 billion the FCC is distributing through the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF) program.
The bill limits funding to those who win support through RDOF and promise to speed up RDOF’s 10-year deployment timetable. The bill also defines “eligible carriers” for funding to be “terrestrial telecommunications carriers,” apparently ruling out augmented support to satellite RDOF winners.
Wicker introduced the bill together with Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). It is unknown whether it has any support in the House or among Senate Democrats. He hinted that the ABC Act was coming during a Commerce Committee hearing last week, where he said, “I think members of the public are going to be disappointed at the [RDOF] 10-year period and the six-year buildout … I may have a proposal. I think this is going to require more resources.”
Under the plan, the FCC would create an Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Fund immediately after the RDOF Phase I auction later this year. The ABC Fund would draw funds form the U.S. Treasury, unlike RDOF, which is a universal service program funded through fees on telecommunications providers. The auction would go forward under the current rules, and after the auction, the Commission would contact Phase I winners to offer addition funding in return for a faster build out schedule.
The new timetable would require RDOF I winners to begin construction within 180 days after the FCC authorizes the award. Carriers would be required to begin service to a portion of the RDOF territory within one year after the award. The carrier would then promise to complete the project within three years after the award. The process would then begin again for RDOF Phase II distribution. The bill includes an exemption of the Administrative Procedures Act, shortening comment periods and other processes the FCC would use to write the ABC Fund rules.
“The amount awarded to a qualified carrier … shall be proportional to the amount of [RDOF] support received by the qualified carrier,” according to the bill’s text.
“One of my top priorities is expanding access to broadband for communities of all sizes,” said Wicker said in a press release. “The coronavirus pandemic has further underscored this pressing need, and I hope our legislation will advance quickly to meet the connectivity needs of Americans living in rural areas, including many in my home state of Mississippi.”
According to the Wicker press release, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association, USTelecom - The Broadband Association, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association support the ABC Act.
Update, July 2: An earlier version of the story misstated the $16.4 billoin the FCC will distribute in RDOF Phase 1.