The FCC, along with industry groups including the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) applauded Congressional action this week to fund broadband initiatives.
Overall, a bipartisan coronavirus relief package and omnibus spending bill approved by lawmakers Monday allocates $7 billion for broadband initiatives.
That includes $1.9 billion to fund rip-and-replace reimbursement, $1 billion in grants for Tribal broadband programs, and $65 million for more accurate coverage maps, as well as $3.2 billion in emergency relief for essential broadband services, among other programs. The legislation also authorizes the auction of mid-band spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band.
CCA president and CEO Steven Berry commended Congress’ approval of the package, particularly funds for essential broadband connectivity.
“This is a giant step in the right direction. The Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the need to ensure that every American, including those in remote and rural areas, have access to mobile broadband services, and CCA has been laser-focused on this issue from the beginning,” Berry stated.
Rosenworcel in a statement Monday emphasized the importance of broadband connectivity. She said that, significantly, the bill includes “much-needed funding for the Federal Communications Commission to map the full extent of the digital divide, to support telehealth efforts during the pandemic, and to secure communications by replacing vulnerable equipment in our networks.”
Funding the FCC “rip and replace” reimbursement program to compensate carriers that need to remove equipment in their networks that’s deemed risky is something CCA, the Rural Wireless Association (RWA), and others have been calling for.
Rules for replacing unsecure network equipment, which carries out an FCC mandate under the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act, were approved this month at the commission’s open meeting and conditioned on congressional funding.
The FCC also recently affirmed that Huawei and ZTE are companies designated as national security risks, meaning service providers can’t use Universal Service Fund monies to purchase telecom equipment or services from the Chinese firms.
CCA’s Berry called Congress’ decision “a huge positive” for impacted carriers.
“I cannot stress enough the significance of fully funding the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program,” Berry said in a statement. “Carriers with covered network elements now have the assurance they need to move forward with replacing necessary equipment, while still being able to provide seamless coverage to their customers.”
RWA had said that without reassurance of compensation for replacing networks that had risky gear, its members were “on pins and needles" and worried about their survival.
The costs for removing Huawei and ZTE from existing telecom infrastructure were estimated at least $1.6 billion.
Better coverage maps
The legislation also appropriates $65 million so the FCC can implement the Broadband DATA Act, which requires the creation of better, more accurate broadband maps that are used for dispersing federal dollars and identifying areas in need of access.
The unreliability and inaccuracy of existing broadband maps is an ongoing issue, made even more clear when the FCC ditched its flawed Mobility Fund Phase II proceeding in 2019 after carriers submitted maps that overstated coverage.
New maps will be used for the second phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), and the $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America adopted in October that’s meant to subsidize 5G deployments in rural areas over the next decade.
The lack of accurate maps became a further point of contention this year as the FCC floated options for the 5G fund, which would either use the inferior existing maps and hold a reverse auction sooner or delay the timeline in favor of more granular coverage maps to determine eligibility. The latter received overwhelming support and the FCC ultimately opted to go for accuracy over speed.
“Including $65 million to implement the Broadband DATA Act is key to producing more accurate broadband data maps, so that areas in need have access to critical funds,” CCA’s Berry stated.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who is leaving in January, applauded Congress Monday, saying, “This legislation gives the FCC the funding we need to implement our Digital Opportunity Data Collection; this is a critical step toward the FCC being able to implement both Phase II of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund as well as the 5G Fund for Rural America that the Commission adopted earlier this year, which together will offer over $20 billion to support high-speed broadband in rural America.”
Pai said that the FCC will act quickly to implement the bill’s provisions once it’s adopted and signed into law.
Rosenworcel stressed the need for support to provide broadband connectivity.
“With so much of modern life now dependent on internet access, no one should have to choose between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries. Simply put, no matter who you are or where you live in this country, you should have access to broadband.”
The legislation also requires the FCC to start auctioning the 3.45-3.55 GHz band by the end of 2021 and repeals a mandate to auction the T-band.
“These provisions will ensure that the Commission and the federal government as a whole stay on track in quickly making the 3.45 GHz band available for 5G and that the FCC does not have to waste resources on a T-band auction that was bound to fail,” Pai said in a statement.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the bill also takes important steps toward expanding broadband access across historically black colleges and universities, other minority serving institutions, and their surrounding communities with funding for a pilot program.
He cautioned more work is needed to bridge what has become the “Covid-19 divide.”
“As we look ahead, we must recognize that internet inequality held millions of Americans back from their full potential long before COVID-19. There is more work to do to bring affordable broadband to everyone—now and after we’ve put this crisis behind us,” Starks stated.