The FCC’s monthly meeting on August 1 kicked off by taking on the next phase of Universal Service support for broadband, launching a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the new 10-year, $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The next item on the agenda was reform of broadband mapping efforts, in the form of an order regarding Digital Opportunity Data Collection. The order also included an accompanying Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to further improve broadband mapping. As reported here recently, the FCC released drafts of both documents in mid-July.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: Debate Over Data
While all five commissioners expressed support for the goals of both proceedings, Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, both Democrats, approved only in part, dissenting to aspects of the RDOF Notice. They objected to targeting broadband funding based on current data, before the improvements brought by the Digital Opportunity Data Collection order kick in. Rosenworcel noted that the RDOF Notice “barely mentions” that there is a separate proceeding regarding broadband data, and felt that it was “fundamentally wrong” that the Commission is not starting with maps or data. The approach, she said, put the “cart before the horse.” She summarized her preferred approach this way: “Maps before money; data before deployment.”
Commissioner Starks echoed these sentiments. He stated that the current approach risks “throwing money to the wind,” and hoping it lands in areas where it will do the most good. The current 477 broadband reporting forms, he said, do not provide a “clear understanding of where broadband is and isn’t.” Noting that Phase 1 of the RDOF, at over $16 billion, amounts to nearly three fourths of the program’s funding over the next decade, he objected to the lack of reliance on updated and improved maps. While understanding the desire to move quickly, he said that the Commission was “choosing speed over accuracy.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, however, “strongly disagreed” with these arguments. He compared it to “withholding medicine until we identify everyone who is sick.” There is no reason, he continued, “to delay helping those we KNOW don’t have access.”
Mapping: Transparency and Accountability
All five commissioners, recognizing widespread dissatisfaction with current broadband maps, also supported the Digital Opportunity Data Collection Order and Further Notice. This time, there was a bit of cross-party agreement on concerns regarding the assignment of data collection and mapping responsibilities to the Universal Service Administration Corporation (USAC).
Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly supported the order, but questioned whether USAC, which administers all Universal Service programs under the FCC’s direction, had the “competence or bandwidth” to take on such a major new undertaking. He compared USAC to a “black hole,” stating that it was insufficiently transparent, and “unresponsive” to Congress and others. Commissioner Rosenworcel agreed. Handing it off to USAC, she said, “doesn’t make sense.” She noted that USAC had never performed a data collection this big before. She also questioned how USAC would be accountable.
Chairman Pai responded that because mapping is so important to Universal Service programs, it makes perfect sense to have USAC fulfill that function. USAC’s existing High Cost Universal Broadband (HUBB) portal currently collects location and other data, so this integration makes sense, according to Pai. He also noted that new maps would by ready in time for RDOF’s Phase 2, which would be especially helpful for those in need of broadband at that point.