Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai plans to schedule a vote to establish the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund at the agency’s January 30 meeting, Inside Towers reports. The fund would provide up to $20.4 billion over the next decade to support high-speed broadband network deployment in rural areas that do not currently have fixed broadband service.
The FCC would use a multi-round, descending-clock reverse auction to maximize the investment’s impact, Inside Towers reports. The FCC took a similar approach in 2018 for the Connect America Fund’s second phase. Connect America helped pay for high-speed broadband to 713,000 underserved rural homes and businesses for 30 percent of the projected costs, according to the FCC.
Two phases for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund
Pai proposed to divide the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund into two phases in order to obtain money for broadband to participants more quickly. According to Inside Towers, the fund’s first phase would provide up to $16 billion to pay for high-speed broadband deployment in census areas where the FCC knows there’s no service that meets its baseline speed standards. Based on initial estimates, the FCC believes approximately six million homes and businesses would qualify for Phase I.
The FCC’s current broadband maps have been questioned about their accuracy. Phase II will begin after the maps have been fixed so that they identify connectivity gaps more precisely. The second phase of the fund will cover underserved homes in census blocks where some houses are served, along with areas that did not get funding during Phase I.
Fund auction tiebreaker rules
If there’s a tie between two bidders for the same area, the bidder who provides faster speeds will win, according to agency staffers. The FCC believes bidders would comprise wireless carriers, wireless Internet service providers, and electric utilities, according to Inside Towers.
“NATE member companies are on the front lines on a daily basis deploying the broadband and related-infrastructure to rural and underserved areas of the United States,” National Association of Tower Erectors Executive Director Todd Schlekeway said in a statement. “The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will ultimately facilitate closing the digital divide by expanding access to the broadband networks these rural homes and businesses need at the high-speeds they deserve.”