O'Rielly to Wicker: I Won't Vote to Hand Out Money Before Maps

FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly signaled to the Senate Commerce Committee that he won't vote on a final order to start handing out billions in 5G buildout subsidy money before the FCC comes up with new availability maps as directed by Congress.

The FCC voted in April to seek comment on a proposal to give out up to $9 billion over a decade for 5G buildouts, which is about $450 million per year more than the Universal Service Fund (USF) Mobility Fund allocation, which it is replacing. The extra money will also come from USF. The FCC will target rural areas that will be less likely to get 5G absent that support. 

The "maps before money" mantra is more associated with Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and the FCC's $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunities Fund, but O'Rielly, who was being grilled in his nomination hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday (June 16), draws a distinction. 

"[U]nlike the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) proceeding which was already in motion prior to the passage of the Broadband DATA Act, the Rural 5G Fund mechanism appears to be within the ambit of a 'new award of funding' for which the FCC would need to use the statutorily-required maps," he said when he voted for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking back in April

O'Rielly is all for expanding 5G, but as a former Hill staffer, O'Rielly is also keenly attuned to "intent of Congress" issues in implementing legislation and has questions about the FCC's legal authority to proceed with funding before the FCC has produced mobile coverage maps as directed by the Broadband DATA Act.  

But those appeared to have been answered in the negative. He first said he would be "hesitant" to move forward, but Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ohio), chairman of the committee, elicited a full stop. 

O'Rielly said that if Wicker's position as one of the authors of the Broadband DATA Act, which required new maps, was that the FCC could not proceed without them, then he agreed.  

"So, we've moved from serious reservations to you would commit not to support moving forward until we get the maps?"  

"Yes," said O'Rielly. 

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has pointed out that the FCC can't get those maps done until Congress appropriates money for the job.

John Eggerton

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.