FCC moves ahead with $20 billion rural broadband funding plan

February 06, 2020

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced last week that it has approved the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund which will provide $20.4 billion over two phases to help expand broadband networks throughout rural communities. Phase one will provide $16 billion for use in communities that are currently unserved by broadband services with minimal download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The remaining funds will be used in phase two which will target underserved communities after a more extensive and focused analysis has been completed to better define “underserved” areas.

Although the FCC has been widely criticized for the inaccuracy of its broadband coverage maps, the organization decided to move forward with its phased plan. The FCC justified its decision by explaining that although its definition of a “served area” has been criticized as misrepresenting areas that are actually “partially served,” there has yet to be any analysis showing that any areas it classifies as “unserved” — the areas targeted in its first phase — are actually receiving adequate broadband services. The FCC argues that funds should not be withheld from the areas that are fully unserved while extensive and time-consuming studies are conducted to determine which areas are partially served — areas that will be the focus of phase two funding.

Another criticism of the program is that it plans to exclude areas that are taking advantage of other state and federal programs — explicitly naming the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million ReConnect Program. Opponents of this rule argue that communities should not be forced to rely on individual state or federal programs which may not provide adequate resources on their own. The FCC has published a preliminary list of communities that may possibly qualify for its first phase of funding. However, many states have already initiated their own rural broadband expansion initiatives which may conflict with the FCC’s program, setting the stage for protracted legal actions and leaving many communities to remain unassisted.

broadband, rural, funding