The FCC on Aug. 1 has tentatively scheduled a vote to get started on the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the $20.4 billion, 10-year program that is to replace the Connect America Fund (CAF). FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to establish the rural broadband program during a White House event in April. At the urging of rural internet providers, the Commission is wasting no time to begin planning.
Last week, the FCC released a draft of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking describing a two-phase reverse auction plan. The first phase would auction support to areas that are completely unserved by broadband. Phase II would auction partially served areas as well as areas that were not sold during first phase. The Commission would make $16 billion of the $20.4 billion available for Phase I and the rest available for Phase II.
Determining the location of unserved and “partially served” rural areas is only possible “once the Commission has more granular information about which areas are already served,” Pai said in a recent blog post. Broadband coverage mapping has been one of the most-discussed issues at the FCC in 2019 as several rural groups have expressed dissatisfaction with data from FCC Form 477. Some companies and alliances are working on alternative measuring processes involving GIS data, crowdsourcing and geocoding techniques.
To accompany the RDOF NPRM, the Commission plans a companion vote on a mapping Report and Order, which would establish a new “Digital Opportunity Data Collection” (DODC). The new mapping approach would continue to break the ISP data reporting process into census blocks, as in the current Form 477 process. But the Commission says it will also use crowdsourcing techniques to fill in households that Form 477 surveys have missed consistently over the years. The order also would establish a challenge process for rural residents to question any Form 477-based finding that a household is served by broadband.
In the same draft document, the FCC says it plans to explore future mapping policy changes, which could include sunsetting the Form 477 process and operating DODC with more advanced techniques the industry is developing.
Among other issues in the RDOF NPRM, Pai says the FCC is proposing to open the Phase I and II auctions “to all types of internet service providers, such as rural telephone companies, small cable providers, fixed wireless companies and electric cooperatives,” he said. The earlier CAF auctions gave the right of first refusal to cover unserved areas to incumbent price-cap telephone companies in rural areas. The current proposal removes that provision.
The draft document also proposes that support be technology-neutral, with entities providing 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream service eligible for funding. However, Pai added that the auction process would tend to “favor faster services with lower latency, like gigabit Internet access.”