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Trump Puts Spotlight on Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

Randy Sukow Apr 12, 2019

President Trump this afternoon gave the FCC a platform at the White House to announce that the Commission is creating a new $20.4 billion rural broadband funding program, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Also, during the White House appearance, the Commission announced that it will begin its next 5G auction (Auction 103) on Dec. 10, 2019.

President Trump declared that broadband networks “must be deployed in every community and they must be deployed as soon as possible. As we’re making progress on 5G, we’re also focused on rural communities that do not have access to broadband at all … The farmers and others … They just haven’t been treated properly and now what we’re doing is making it a priority. That’s the areas where we want to go first so they’re covered.”

“This [RDOF] money will extend high-speed broadband to up to 4 million homes and small businesses in rural America,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “These next-generation networks will bring greater economic opportunity to America’s heartland, including some great jobs building infrastructure and they will help support future 5G technologies.”

Pai did not provide any additional detail about the new fund during the appearance, except to say that the FCC would administer the program. He did not indicate whether RDOF would be a mechanism of the universal service program or a portion of the Connect America Fund (CAF). In the past the FCC has funded broadband projects through the CAF Phase I and Phase II programs, as well as a $100 million Broadband Rural Experiment that awarded support to several NRTC telephone and electric members in 2015. RDOF represents a substantial augmentation to those earlier programs.

As for the next 5G auction, both Trump and Pai referred to new wireless networks as a global race with other nations that the America is winning. “We cannot allow any other country to out-compete the United States in this powerful industry of the future,” Trump said. “By the end of this year, the United States will have 92 5G deployments in markets nationwide. The next nearest country, South Korea, will have 48.”

Earlier today, the FCC unanimously approved a notice seeking comment on rules for the next 5G auction. It will be the FCC’s second incentive auction, which will seek ways to efficiently repurpose frequencies currently used by other licensees.

“We will be auctioning 3400 megahertz of spectrum [upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz millimeter bands] for the commercial marketplace,” Pai said at the FCC’s monthly agenda meeting this morning. “This is an astounding milestone. It is the most spectrum we have ever will have auctioned at one time in this nation's history … In short, we are ready to venture off the deep end in order to secure American leadership in 5G, the next generation in wireless connectivity.”

Despite unanimous approval of the notice, some FCC commissioners mentioned down sides to the current state of 5G advancement. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly complained that the third 5G auction will not happen until the end of the year. The first 5G auction for 28 GHz spectrum ended in January 2019, and the second for 24 GHz spectrum is in progress now. “These perpetual delays and exaggerated timelines designed to test auction software are past the point of acceptable. For the money the Commission's spending on auction issues, we should be getting more functionality and timeliness,” he said.

While Pai and Trump pointed to the U.S. lead in actual 5G deployments, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel worried about America’s comparative lack of available middle-band spectrum for 5G and the FCC’s focus on high bands above 24 GHz. Most of the world will be operating 5G on lower bands that have better propagation characteristics.

“If we want to serve everywhere in the country and not create communities of 5G haves and 5G have-nots, we are going to need a healthy mix of airwaves that provide both coverage and capacity,” Rosenworcel said. “That means we need mid-band spectrum and it’s especially important for rural America where the challenging economics of service do not presently support the high cost of high-band infrastructure.”

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