The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday released a staff report detailing what state-by-state eligibility might look under one option for the agency’s proposed $9 billion rural 5G Fund, but the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) called the approach “extremely concerning.”
At its meeting later this month the FCC will vote on a proposal for the fund, which would distribute $8 billion in Phase 1 for 5G deployments over 10 years. It targets rural areas that wouldn’t likely get access without support or won’t be covered by T-Mobile’s merger commitments to expand rural 5G coverage.
At issue though are two options the FCC laid out for dispersing the funds. The first approach would see a multi-round reverse auction happen in 2021 and rely on currently available data to determine where service and support is needed most, prioritizing areas that historically lacked 3G and 4G service. A second approach would push the auction timeline out until at least 2023, but rely on more accurate mobile broadband coverage data through the agency’s new Digital Opportunity Data Collection.
If the draft proposal is approved, the agency will seek public comment on the two options to determine which way to go.
Accurate broadband coverage data has been an issue and earlier in the week industry group CCA slammed the options as a “false choice” between delaying funding for several years or “moving forward using the flawed coverage data, simply for the sake of moving forward quickly.”
In its new analysis (PDF) that includes state maps showing eligibility, the FCC relied on U.S. Census Bureau population and geographic data, and considered how rural any given area was using information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural-Urban Commuting Area to categorize census tracts.
Overall, the report finds that as much 67% of land in 49 states and three U.S. territories could be eligible for support. In terms of population, about 24.7 million or 8% of the U.S. population could be eligible.
Although not focused specifically on mobile broadband, the FCC’s 2019 broadband report found 21.3 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. The accuracy of coverage data has been widely criticized though, including by Microsoft which has been pushing ahead with its efforts to use TV white spaces to bring better broadband coverage to more rural areas.
Microsoft’s own data claims the scope of the problem is much greater, and as of November 2019 about 157.3 million people weren’t using the internet at broadband speeds. Last year the FCC scrapped its flawed Mobility Fund Phase II proceeding meant to support rural 4G LTE deployments, citing unreliable and overstated coverage maps submitted by mobile carriers.
The FCC's new analysis of the first distribution option for the 5G Fund for Rural America shows the top five states in terms of land area percentage that would be eligible include Nebraska (92%), North Dakota (91%), South Dakota (90%), Montana (89%), and Wyoming (86%). For population percentage, the top 5 five states include, Vermont (47%) or 293,897 people; Maine (34%) or 447,106; Montana (33%) or 324,685; North Dakota (33%) or 218,929; and South Dakota (32%) or 263,300.
In the analysis, 11 states and three U.S. territories would be eligible for funding that would cover at least 20% of their respective populations. In 32 states, 15% or less of the population in each state could be eligible.
The report also notes that areas identified as potentially eligible “represent an upper bound on reliability.” The actual areas that could get support may be reduced, according to the report, because of T-Mobile’s 5G commitments that include pledges to expand 5G to 90% of rural Americans within six years.
Maps don’t alleviate CCA concerns
To CCA, which 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 maps don't appear to alleviate the group’s concerns.
CCA President and CEO Steven Berry in a statement said: “Unfortunately, the FCC is publishing eligibility maps that bear little relationship to where there is or is not actually coverage. The analysis itself notes that the maps released today may bear little resemblance to the areas actually available for funding in an auction, which is extremely concerning.”
Berry’s statement continued to say that it appears the FCC is set on spending $9 billion “without bothering to measure the scope of the problem they are purporting to solve,” noting that it’s a time when the importance of bridging the digital divide has become even more apparent.
“This approach does nothing to help ensure that unserved and underserved areas have access to robust mobile broadband services,” Berry continued. “Instead of further analysis on what areas could [emphasis Berry's] be eligible, the FCC should focus on implementing the Broadband DATA Act to make data-driven decisions about what areas should receive funding for the next decade of mobile deployment.”
Under the recently enacted Broadband Data Act, 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.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the time warned the FCC would need funding from Congress as soon as possible in order to implement the act.
Pai on Thursday applauded the FCC for its eligibility mapping efforts.
“I thank our tireless staff for mapping out where in rural America we could see benefits from this new Fund if we were to move forward quickly,” Pai said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the input we get from the public, state and local groups, rural providers, and others on how we can best meet our goals for bridging the digital divide."