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

The Federal Communications Commission voted to establish a fund for up to $9 billion in federal support for rural 5G buildouts and precision agriculture, but some members reiterated concerns over progress on new wireless coverage maps.

All five members voted in favor, with Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks each dissenting in part.

The Report and Order adopted Tuesday at the FCC’s open meeting sets up the 5G Fund for Rural America that includes up to $8 billion in Universal Service Fund (USF) dollars to be awarded in the first phase of a multi-round reverse auction for 5G buildouts over 10 years. These are focused on parts of the country that don’t have unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G mobile service. Of that, $650 million is allocated for providers that plan to serve Tribal lands. The second phase provides at least $1 billion for deployments for precision agriculture technologies and areas remaining after Phase 1.  

Areas without unsubsidized providers means places where wireless carriers or network operators aren't investing themselves, absent government aid, to deploy 5G services.

The 5G fund is replacing the Mobility Fund Phase II proceeding – which was a USF program intended to subsidize 4G LTE deployments that was scrapped after the process revealed carrier-submitted mobile coverage maps were severely flawed and inaccurate.   

One key aspect of the order is that the FCC will rely on new, more precise and accurate broadband data maps to determine what areas of the country are lacking mobile service and therefore eligible for funds, before holding an auction. Those maps are meant to be developed as part of the Commission’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection, but haven’t been created yet. More on that below.

RELATED: FCC opts for accuracy over speed in $9B rural 5G Fund

The FCC called out these components of the new 5G Fund:

  • When determining eligible locations, it appears the FCC will exclude areas where T-Mobile committed to  deploy 5G service as part of its merger-related agreement approval of its Sprint deal. That includes covering 90% of rural Americans within six years. The FCC says this will avoid overbuilding and wasting resources.
  • The reverse auction will factor in and adjust for areas that are particularly expensive to deploy or don’t have a good business case, because of things like rugged terrain or low population, to ensure they can compete in the auction.
  • Winning bidders of the 5G Fund have to deliver 5G mobile broadband speeds of at least 35 Mbps downloads and 3 Mbps uploads, and meet deployment benchmarks starting in the third year, and final milestones by the end of year six.
  • Carriers that get legacy mobile high-cost support have to start spending an increasing portion of their $368 million in funds to deliver 5G in rural areas that considered more expensive to support.

When first floated, the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed two options – the first that would use currently available coverage data that’s been largely recognized as inaccurate and flawed, but hold an auction earlier.

RELATED: CCA blasts FCC’s rural 5G Fund eligibility maps

Commissioners and industry stakeholders who shared comments on the choices were largely against the first option (also known as Option A). Widespread criticism was aimed both at having to choose between speed or accuracy, with the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) slamming it as “false choice,” as well as concerns that the first option went against Congressional direction for the FCC to develop and use new coverage maps to award federal funding for broadband deployments.

Commissioners critique slow-moving mapping efforts

All of the commission members signaled they were pleased that the order adopted so-called option B, using new coverage maps to determine areas for funding, but Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks suggested it was too early to vote on some of the items details. .

Commissioner Rosenworcel expressed support for the order, but said the auction is being constructed without grounding in real-world data due to the agency “slow-rolling efforts to fix our maps.”  

“The framework we have is sound, but the details would benefit from more data gathering before we proceed,” Rosenworcel said.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer we need to find some way to make at least some progress now because we need that data to help inform the choices we make about how this auction operates, what speeds it requires and what build out it compels,” Rosenworcel stated. “We need that data to know what communities lack wireless service and how much reaching them will truly cost.”

Specifically, she questioned the basis for requiring service providers to cover 85% of the area won at auction (rather than 100%), as well as speed threshold obligations set for the next 10 years, asking if they would still be relevant by the time an auction happens.

Commissioner Starks echoed similar sentiment that the order made the right move to rely on more accurate coverage maps before distributing funds, saying the 5G Fund “truly represents an important milestone” for bringing 5G to all Americans. Still, he said felt it was premature to vote on some of the issues in the Report and Order, pointing to rules for an auction preconditioned on accurate broadband data that the FCC hasn’t collected or analyzed yet.

RELATED: FCC takes up rural 5G fund, but questions linger

Starks cited concerns over the $9 billion budget, saying it might not be enough to cover the needs but that there isn’t information yet to know.

“We should withhold judgement on issues that would be better decided with new maps and data in hand,” Starks said.

Both Democratic commissioners pointed to the FCC’s delay on obligations under the Broadband DATA Act, but Chairman Pai reiterated that the agency is still waiting on money from Congress that the FCC needs in order to carry those out.

Commissioner Brendan Carr, meanwhile, said the order moves in the right direction but indicated that the FCC should be focused on delivering high-speed internet, though not necessarily only through 5G.

“To be good stewards, to treat ratepayers’ dollars as our own, we need to focus on what the people we serve actually care about: fast Internet, by whatever means,” Carr stated in prepared remarks.

Wireless groups respond

Wireless industry groups, including the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and CTIA, applauded Tuesday’s vote.

CCA President and CEO Steven Berry commended the FCC for making the mapping process a priority.

“Updating the maps with more reliable data is an essential first step before distributing funds, and I applaud the FCC for today’s decision, which is in line with congressional direction and has overwhelming support in the record,” Berry stated. “We look forward to seeing the full details as they are made available, and CCA will continue to work with Congress to fully fund the Broadband DATA Act to better understand where support is needed and whether the budget is sufficient.  All Americans, especially those in unserved and underserved areas, need and deserve access to mobile broadband services, and I commend the FCC for its focus on achieving this important goal.”

CTIA SVP of regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann said the group supports the items and that the FCC continued to demonstrate leadership in promoting next-generation wireless networks.

“Through the 5G Fund Order, the FCC will harness new maps and existing universal service funds to help ensure that rural consumers benefit from revolutionary 5G services,” Bergmann stated. “By clarifying the Compound Expansion rules, the FCC is empowering providers to upgrade existing facilities with next-generation equipment to support the emerging 5G economy.”