Pai Circulates Final Framework for Rural Broadband Fund

The FCC is voting June 9 on final auction procedures for handing out billions in rural broadband funding ASAP, with FCC chair Ajit Pai signaling that is one reason that the FCC needs to push money out before it completes a separate proceeding for better identifying where broadband is and isn't. 

Pai said Monday he has circulated a draft for those final procedures to his colleagues. 

In August 2019, the FCC voted to propose handing out over $20 billion in Universal Service Fund (USF) subsidies for rural broadband over the next decade, money that could go to cable broadband providers as well as telecoms.  

Related: Are You Ready for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund 

The first phase of the program will hand out $16 billion for census tracks where there is no service. In the second, $4.4 billion, plus whatever money is left over from phase one, will be available for building out partially served census tracts. 

The FCC has taken some criticism for handing out the $16 billion before it collects better broadband availability data, but Pai has pointed out that while the FCC concedes it needs better data, that is generally for areas that might show service where there is none, not where the data shows there is no service. 

He also points out that, in the wake of COVID-19, getting that broadband out to unserved rural areas ASAP is a priority. 

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will be allocated via a two-phase, reverse, descending clock, auction. That means carriers will bid on the right to use the funds to build out broadband and voice to unserved high-cost areas, which are generally rural areas, low bid wins.  

The auction is scheduled to begin Oct. 29. 

“Closing the digital divide is my top priority as Chairman, and this auction is our boldest step yet to ensure that broadband is available to all Americans,” said Pai in announcing the item's circulation. “We’ve designed this auction to ensure robust participation, with incentives for bidders to build high-performance networks so we get fast broadband to as many as six million American homes and business that aren’t currently connected. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for the Commission to continue its work to ensure that all Americans have access to high-speed broadband as soon as possible. That’s one reason why we’re moving full speed ahead with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.”

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.