FCC awarding $16B to address rural broadband gap

The Federal Communications Commission voted to adopt procedures on Tuesday for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. The adopted procedures will award up to $16 billion for the deployment of broadband networks to unserved homes and businesses across rural America.

The application window for potential bidders will open on July 1, and bidding will begin on Oct. 29. Per the FCC, bidders must have the experience and financial means to deploy broadband networks in rural communities. Bidders must also intend to use a network technology that will enable them to satisfy performance requirements.

While the three FCC Republican commissioners ultimately approved the proposal, the two Democrats dissented in part.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, explained, “These Americans deserve access to broadband as soon as possible. They cannot afford to wait—and neither can we as a country—while we work to develop the new, more granular broadband coverage maps that will serve as the basis for the Phase II auction.”

“Digital opportunity delayed is digital opportunity denied,” Pai added.

Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel disagreed.

“We are rushing billions out the door with a brazen disregard for our legal obligation to do so based on accurate data and that means when it comes to broadband we are going to leave millions behind,” she said.

Geoffrey Starks, another Democrat on the panel, explained he would have “preferred to start with a smaller budget or shorter term of support so that the bulk” of funds “could be spent after we complete the mapping overhaul.”

“The ten-year term the Commission chose in January has additional ramifications for this Public Notice. Committing so much of the budget for so long raises the stakes on how we treat emerging technologies and technical capabilities,” Starks added.

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, added his thoughts, saying “Today’s vote represents the next step in the FCC’s most significant effort yet towards connecting the hardest-to-serve parts of the country.”

Many communities throughout rural America have struggled to obtain reliable broadband access. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is just one of many initiatives aiming to remedy the issue. States, such as Vermont, have also launched their own initiatives to address the digital divide and provide residents with reliable broadband access.