CCA seeks $11B from FCC for nationwide rural 5G

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) says more money needs to be allocated to the ensure 5G makes its way into rural areas that likely wouldn’t get the new technology without support. Specifically, it has eyes on $11 billion more for the FCC’s 5G Fund.

On Friday CCA released new analysis it commissioned, conducted by CostQuest, which pegs the total initial cost of investment – from both private and federal funds – at $36 billion to reach ubiquitous nationwide 5G coverage in areas where carriers are unlikely to deploy without support.

The FCC last October voted for $9 billion in Universal Service Fund dollars to establish a newly created 5G Fund to support 5G deployments in rural areas. However, CCA noted that the budget wasn’t based on data and was decided before updated mobile broadband coverage maps were created.

The new analysis is based on real-world data, costs and 4G LTE coverage data submitted by the four largest carriers to the FCC in August.

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In the announcement CCA stated that “this cost model provides a rigorous data set, including detailed location-level information, that offers clear answers to questions raised as the 5G Fund was adopted and demonstrates that a $9 billion investment will fall far short of the goal for ubiquitous service.”

The group wants to avoid a 5G gap that mirrors the current digital divide from earlier technology generations, where there’s not incentive for carriers to deploy service in high-cost, low-density areas.

“It’s clear the $9 billion dollar 5G fund will not adequately address the need for rural America to receive the latest mobile services anywhere near the time or the same time frame as they will be enjoyed by the urban and suburban areas,” said CCA President and CEO Steven Berry during a Friday press call.

RELATED: FCC adopts 5G rural fund, new coverage maps still needed

CCA is urging policy-makers to immediately “right-size” the 5G Fund upward to $20 billion. As to where the money would come from, the group thinks a good start is already available with the idea that fixed broadband is getting its fair share of new federal funding and $11 billion left for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase II (which aims to extend fixed broadband to hard to serve areas) is fully supplanted by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was passed by Congress and expected to be signed by President Biden next week. It includes a $42.45 billion grant program for wired and wireless fixed broadband for unserved and underserved communities.

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Berry commended Congress on the infrastructure bill but stressed the importance of both fixed and mobile funding.

“Fixed broadband alone cannot close the digital divide and investing only in fixed connectivity will still leave dead spots throughout rural America,” Berry said. “That is a problem for how networks are used today especially in regard to immersive communications.”

It could also impede economic activity as 5G technology matures with new services coming online like precision agriculture, telehealth, distance learning and IoT connectivity, he said.

“Without mobile coverage new services will simply not work in rural America,” he said. RDOF Phase II “has $11 billion more dollars remaining in the highest-cost budget … we know that the CostQuest model there is a clear solution that does not require new appropriations from Congress.

RELATED: Why isn't 5G getting more broadband funding?

“The FCC should immediately begin the process to reallocate existing USF high-cost funds no longer needed to achieve the goals of RDOF to the 5G Fund establishing a budget of approximately $20 billion that can be adjusted in the future…with updated maps once they’re completed,” Berry said.  

37K new coverage sites needed

CostQuest is known for creating national at-network cost models, which have used been the FCC for the national broadband plan and for the Connect America Fund (CAF), as well as recent RDOF auctions to set the reserve price level. It’s also performed 3G and 4G ubiquity cost models.

CostQuest President and CEO James Stegeman said during Friday’s press call that it’s not a population coverage study per say, but rather what roads and what areas are unserved. Calculations involved networks with target speed of 35 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up, and using mid- or low-band spectrum (millimeter wave was excluded).

The model includes cell site specific costs, the full cost of towers where needed, RF equipment, radio heads, antennas, power systems, housing for the equipment, access roads, fencing and other aspects involved in a macro cell deployment.

It also took into consideration other forms of backhaul, including new fiber and microwave.

The base number is $36 billion in initial capital for full road and area coverage in the U.S., which doesn’t include potential costs for 10-year replacement needs or additional costs to upgrade core networks and edge sites. 

In total, CostQuest estimates there’s a need for about 37,000 new coverage sites in the country, the majority of which would require new towers, Stegeman said.

Deployment of those sites would cover approximately 990 million miles of unserved roads that exist today, he added, noting the cost estimate equates to around $1 million per site.