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

The Federal Communications Commission later this month will vote on a $9 billion fund to support rural 5G deployments, which decides to wait for improved mobile coverage data before holding a reverse auction.  

When the commission moved the 5G Fund for Rural America proposal forward in April, there were two options on the table: the first (dubbed option A) would’ve relied on currently available mobile coverage maps, which are widely scrutinized as flawed and inaccurate, to determine the locations eligible for support. That was positioned as a tradeoff for holding a reverse auction earlier, in 2021.

Instead, at its October 27 meeting the commission will vote on a framework released Tuesday that aligns with the second (or option B). It still includes a two-phase $9 billion reverse auction, but will use new more precise coverage maps created through the Commission’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection. The areas targeted for support are those that don’t have unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G service, and aren’t likely to see deployments otherwise.

There had been immediate pushback to the original options from groups like the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which called it “a false choice.” Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel, Geoffrey Starks took issue with pitting accuracy against a timely auction, and along with Commissioner Michael O’Rielly had questioned if it went against the direction of Congress to distribute broadband funding without using new maps.  

Today’s FCC item (PDF) disagreed with arguments that the Broadband DATA Act expressly prohibits awarding 5G Fund support before collecting updated mobile coverage data.

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CCA President and CEO Steven Berry in a statement Tuesday thanked the commission and said he was “very pleased that the item released today addresses the mapping issue first and foremost, in line with Congressional direction and overwhelming support on the record.”

“Updating the maps with more reliable data is an absolutely essential first step before distributing funds,” Berry continued.

The FCC item released Tuesday also pointed “overwhelming” support on the record to use updated and better maps, as well as lessons learned from the Mobility Fund. The 5G Rural Fund replaces the Mobility Fund, which provided support for 4G LTE deployments. The Mobility Fund Phase II proceeding was scrapped after an investigation showed some carriers submitted flawed and overstated coverage maps.

“Although this approach will not be the fastest possible path to the Phase I auction, it will allow us to identify with greater precision those areas of the country where support is most needed and will be spent most efficiently,” the 5G Fund item released today states.

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That could be important since the $9 billion fund subsidizes deployments over a 10-year term. Up to $8 billion would be available in phase 1, with $680 million allocated for bidders serving Tribal lands. Phase two includes at least $1 billion for deployments that help the adoption of precision agriculture.

Winning auction bidders would have to deploy 5G networks that conform to 3GPP New Radio (NR) standards with Release 15; meet minimum download and upload speeds of at least 35 Mbps and 3 Mbps, respectively,’ and reach certain deployment milestones at the start of year three and end of year six.

The earlier 5G Fund NPRM had estimated that waiting on new data collection would extend the auction timeline by 18-24 months, but after weighing input, the commission determined greater precision offsets any potential auction delays.

The commission notes it’s still waiting on appropriations from Congress that the agency needs to implement the new data collection under the Broadband DATA Act.