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FCC's Pai Creates Broadband Auction Task Force

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has created a Rural Broadband Auctions task force to speed the process of getting more government subsidy money into the pipeline for broadband deployment, specifically to competitive providers including cable ISPs.

The FCC created an auction system for disbursing more than $6.5 billion in Connect America Fund II (CAF II) and Mobility Fund II Universal Service Fund subsidies to bring broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas, a goal he has signaled would be a centerpiece of his agenda. 

The FCC began the move under Democratic chairman Julius Genachowski to migrate phone subsidies to broadband as the next essential communications service.

"The Task Force I announce today will help ensure that taxpayer funds are allocated efficiently for rural broadband deployment and that all Americans who want Internet access are able to get it," said Pai in announcing the task force. 

Heading up the task force will be Chelsea Fallon—deputy chief of the industry analysis and technology division at the Wireline Competition Bureau—as director, with Michael Janson, assistant bureau chief at the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and Kirk Burgee, associate bureau chief and chief of staff at the Wireline Competition Bureau, as deputy directors.

Thom Parisi, legal advisor for the Wireline Competition Bureau, will be chief of staff.

“Commencing these auctions as soon as possible is a top priority for the Commission as we seek to close the digital divide," said Pai. "As with other proceedings, we believe we must engage with the public and be as transparent as possible throughout the duration of these two auctions, including identifying potential problems early on and fixing them ahead of time."

The FCC voted Feb. 23, though with commissioner Michael O'Rielly approving in part and dissenting in part, to establish rules for handing out $2 billion (the CAF II portion) for rural broadband deployment by competitive carriers, including cable ISPs.

The largest incumbent carriers, who got first crack at the money, declined about $2 billion in Connect America Fund phase II (CAF II) support for building out to high-cost, generally rural, areas, in 20 states, so the FCC is opening that pot of money up to competitors via auction.

Related: Senators Urge Pai to Spur Mobility Fund

The Competitive Carriers Association praised the creation of the task force.

“Rural consumers deserve comparable coverage and service to their urban counterparts," said CCA president Steven K. Berry. "CCA applauds the Commission for its continued focus on closing the digital divide. To ensure the limited resources allocated for Mobility Fund II are put to their best use, the Task Force must attempt to standardize the unreliable and inconsistent underlying data to present accurate, on-the-ground broadband coverage that reflects consumers’ actual mobile experiences. This should be a top priority of the Task Force – if you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it – and rural consumers will lose.  

"As Chairman Blackburn noted, fixing underlying coverage estimates is a, ‘fool’s errand without precise data.’ To achieve Chairman Pai’s goals of ensuring funds are allocated efficiently and effectively, this Task Force should prioritize standardizing an accurate depiction of where digital gaps exists in rural America. There’s strong bipartisan support in the House and the Senate to get this done right.”

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.