The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) thinks the FCC isn’t giving service providers a real choice when it comes to two distribution options for up to $8 billion that the agency would dole out under its newly proposed fund for rural 5G deployments.
CCA President and CEO Steven Berry in a statement expressed appreciation for the FCC’s focus on rural America and plans to dedicate in Phase 1 up to $8 billion over 10 years in for 5G mobile service rollouts in areas that would otherwise not likely get access to next-gen service, but stressed he was “extremely discouraged” by the two choices laid out for a reverse auction.
Option one in the draft proposal, announced last week, would see an auction happen in 2021, but rely on current data to define eligible areas, prioritizing locations that have historically lacked 4G LTE or 3G service.
In option two, an auction would be pushed back until at least 2023, once the FCC has been able to update its collection and processing methods for more accurate mobile broadband coverage data.
CCA counts around 100 carrier members, ranging from smaller and rural providers to regional and some national players, who collectively serve more than 130 million subscribers. The industry trade association said it’s very concerned that the two options “set up a false dichotomy” and do not efficiently and effectively advance broadband deployment in under and unserved areas.
“The draft proposal sets up a false choice between, on the one hand, updating the FCC’s maps in line with the recently-enacted Broadband DATA Act but delaying funding for several years, and, on the other hand, moving forward using the flawed coverage data, simply for the sake of moving forward quickly,” said Berry in a statement. “But these are plainly not the only options, nor the best options; there is no reason why the FCC cannot follow the law that Congress mandated and distribute needed funding in a timely manner, with accurate data."
Berry added that the industry should be looking for “real solutions to deploy mobile broadband as quickly as possible,” rather than being confined to “two inadequate options.”
The accuracy and reliability of broadband coverage data in the U.S. has been widely criticized. In August, the FCC established (PDF) the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative to collect geospatial broadband overage from fixed providers and sought comment on how to more accurately collect mobile coverage.
The proposed 5G Fund for rural areas taps Universal Service Fund (USF) dollars and replaces the agency’s Mobility Fund Phase II, which was meant to support 4G LTE rollouts in unserved rural areas. However, the FCC scrapped that proceeding last year after it determined wireless carriers provided inaccurate and often overstated coverage maps, which the proceeding needed to rely on to determine eligible areas.
Congress too stepped in, passing the Broadband DATA Act, which was signed into law last month. Under the newly-enacted legislation, the FCC is required to collect granular service ability data from wired, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers. It also set parameters for data collected from mobile operators about service availability to ensure accuracy, and requires the FCC to use the newly-created maps when it awards new funding for broadband.
At the time, however, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai warned the agency would need appropriations from Congress as soon as possible in order to implement the act.
“Right now, the FCC does not have the funding to carry out the Act, as we have warned for some time,” Pai said in a statement. (PDF) “And given the Act’s prohibition on the Universal Service Administrative Company performing this mapping work, if Congress does not act soon, this well-intentioned legislation will have the unfortunate effect of delaying rather than expediting the development of better broadband maps.”
CCA pointed to the dramatic change in everyday life millions of Americans have experienced in just the last month with many working and learning from home, as much of the country is under stay at home orders because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
“I can think of no more critical time to ensure rural Americans have a plan over the next decade to access essential mobile broadband services, and I strongly encourage the Commission to revisit its draft proposal, which falls woefully short of achieving this important goal,” Berry’s statement continued.
Under the proposal, 5G Fund awards would require carriers deploy networks that meet 5G New Radio (NR) standards developed by the 3GPP with Release 15. Winning bidders would have to offer 5G service in at least 40% of their coverage area within three years, and at least 80% in five years.
The agency is also seeking input on minimum speed requirements, including downloads of 50 Mbps or 35 Mbps.
The FCC will consider the draft proposal at its April 23 meeting.