The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially established a new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to bring broadband to unserved areas of rural America. But two of the FCC commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the process because they say the FCC’s broadband maps, which will determine where the funds get spent, are awful. And Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel claimed the FCC is rushing RDOF during an election year in what feels like a “publicity stunt.”
The FCC voted last week to create the new RDOF. Through a two-phase process, the FCC will direct up to $20.4 billion of Universal Service Funds over 10 years to finance broadband networks in unserved rural areas.
The first phase of RDOF will begin later this year, and target census blocks that are wholly unserved. This phase will make available up to $16 billion to census blocks where existing data shows there is no service available whatsoever. Funds will be allocated through a multi-round reverse auction like that used in 2018’s Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II auction. FCC staff’s preliminary estimate is that about six million rural homes and businesses are located in areas initially eligible for bidding in the Phase I auction. Phase II of the program will make available at least $4.4 billion to target partially served areas.
According to the FCC’s announcement of RDOF, the auctions will use “the granular, precise broadband mapping data being developed in the FCC’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection.”
But the two Democrat Commissioners – Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks – slammed the FCC’s broadband maps.
Rosenworcel said the FCC has made of mess with its broadband maps, and the agency should know in detail where service truly is and is not before it spends billions. “Right now, if a single subscriber in a census block is identified as having broadband, we conclude broadband is available throughout,” said Rosenworcel. “That’s not right. We rush billions of dollars out the door in what feels like a broadband publicity stunt without taking a broad view of what the nation needs.”
In May 2019, the FCC admitted that its broadband numbers released earlier in the year were inaccurate and overstated, and it revised its figures. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said even with the revised numbers, his agency was still making progress in closing the digital divide. However, the agency hasn’t done anything since then to try and make its maps more accurate.
Microsoft, which is working on a TV white spaces initiative to bring more broadband to rural areas, has complained repeatedly that the FCC’s broadband maps are inaccurate. Shelley McKinley, head of Microsoft’s technology and corporate responsibility group, said in a 2019 conversation with FierceWireless that it’s important to have accurate data about where connectivity is lacking in order to know where funding should be allocated. She described the FCC’s estimations as “flawed data after flawed data.”
At last week’s FCC meeting Commissioner Starks said, “I have zero tolerance for continuing to spend precious universal service funds based on bad data. There is bipartisan—and nearly universal—agreement that our existing broadband deployment data contains fundamental flaws. And yet today’s order presses ahead with funding decisions based on mapping data that doesn’t reflect reality.”
Starks and Rosenworcel approved the RDOF Report and Order in part and dissented in part. But the three Republicans on the Commission - Chairman Pai and Commissioners O’Rielly and Carr - were able to push the project to approval.