Senate Commerce Chairman Hints at Funds to Augment RDOF

Randy Sukow


Some members of Congress, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), recently have advocated getting Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF) money into broadband providers’ hands more quickly. He has sought ways to speed up the start date of the RDOF auction, now scheduled for Oct. 29. During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, Wicker shifted his focus from speeding up the auction start date to hastening the build-out deadlines for RDOF projects. At the same time, he hinted that more federal funding for rural broadband could be possible.

The Senate Commerce Committee was holding a confirmation for FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who the president has nominated for a new term through June 2024. Wicker asked O’Rielly about hastening RDOF deadlines, which give winning bidders six years to build out a project and spreads overall funding for 10 years.

“There may be a mechanism to expedite some of that build-out time and that is something I would be happy to work with you on,” said O’Rielly (pictured left).

“You know, I think there is,” Wicker replied. “I think members of the public are going to be disappointed at the 10-year period and the six-year buildout … I may have a proposal. I think this is going to require more resources. Frankly, this is the important aspect of it … Once the Phase I auction occurs, I think we can help you with some extra funds and send it on a bipartisan basis to move this ahead.”

The FCC currently is preparing the short-form application window for RDOF participants, which last from July 1 through July 15. Those participants will bid for about $16 billion to build broadband in currently unserved rural areas. Some have complained that the additional $4.4 billion the FCC has set aside for a planned Phase II RDOF auction later might not be enough to reach all remaining unserved homes.

In his opening statement to the committee, O’Rielly alluded to the “poor mapping and related data” the FCC is using to organize broadband auctions. This Phase I auction this year is distributing funds for areas marked as unserved, even using the “poor mapping.” But the Phase II auction could take years to organize while the FCC works to develop adequate mapping. That could buy time for Congress to find ways to augment RDOF.

In the meantime, the FCC also is planning a 5G Fund to ensure high-speed mobile service in rura5l areas. Like RDOF, the lack of adequate mapping affects the timing of that reverse auction. During the hearing, Wicker asked O’Rielly whether the Commission plans to open the 5G auction before it has completed improved maps.

“I have serious concerns and have raised them regarding moving forward without new maps and I certainly want to listen to this committee and its views on the matter.” O’Rielly said. “I would be hesitant to move forward in any capacity without addressing the issue of mapping.”

Wicker pressed to ask whether O’Rielly was making a “commitment” to waiting for mapping before starting the 5G auction. O’Rielly responded that he was.

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