FCC takes up rural 5G fund, but questions linger

The FCC on Thursday voted to move forward a proposal to distribute up to $9 billion for rural 5G rollouts, but concerns remained and the agency is seeking stakeholder input on two options for doling out the funds.

The commission adopted the draft plan (PDF), with Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks each dissenting in part. However, while all supported the proposal’s intention, some questioned both the legality and if the approaches laid out are the best way to get mobile service to areas that would otherwise unlikely see access.

RELATED: FCC floats options for proposed $9B 5G rural fund

In the first option, a reverse auction for up to $8 billion to support 5G deployments over 10 years would take place in 2021 and rely on currently available data to identify areas of the country lacking service and eligible for support. In option two, that timeline would be pushed back until at least 2023, once the agency has more accurate mobile coverage data based on updated and detailed broadband maps.

Rosenworcel, Starks, and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in respective statements all expressed concerned about the FCC’s legal authority to distribute funds before completing new detailed coverage maps required under the recently enacted Broadband DATA Act.

The lack of accurate data of where broadband is currently available or needed most in the U.S. is a known issue, and Congress stepped in with the bipartisan legislation. The problem was also apparent in December when the FCC first floated the rural 5G fund after scrapping its Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) proceeding. The MF-II was meant to support 4G LTE deployments, but was ditched after the agency determined it couldn’t adequately identify locations eligible for support because major carriers had submitted inaccurate and often overstated coverage maps.

RELATED: FCC to ditch flawed Mobility Fund II over unreliable 4G LTE coverage maps

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which already slammed the proposal’s options as inadequate, called Thursday’s decision “nothing short of disappointing.” CCA counts around 100 carrier members, ranging from smaller and rural providers to regional and some national players, many of which receive USF support, and collectively serve more than 130 million subscribers.