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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Announces Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Highlighting 25 Mbps Download Speed Requirement

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (at left) with workers in front of giant spool of fiber cable in Gadsden County, Florida, courtesy the FCC

WASHINGTON, January 8, 2020 - Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday announced that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, with $20.4 billion over the next 10 years, will be voted on by the agency at its January 30 meeting.

Pai announced further details about the opportunity fund in a blog post and with a press call, including detailing the division of funding into two phases. Phase I will target census blocks that are unserved by broadband delivered at download speeds of less than 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) / and upload speeds of less 3 Mbps. The agency said that $16 billion would be made available in this first phase.

In Phase II, the FCC would use a new granular broadband mapping approach, unveiled in August as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, to target unserved households in partially served census blocks. These census blocks are those in which some locations have access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps, but others do not.

Phase II would also include funding for any areas not awarded during the Phase I reverse auction.

“This two-phase structure would allow the FCC to expedite funding to areas that we know are unserved rather than waiting for the completion of the agency’s ongoing, comprehensive effort to improve mapping,” the agency said in a fact sheet distributed in advance of the press call.

“The FCC’s existing Form 477 data has been criticized for identifying partially served blocks as ‘served,’ not for identifying as ‘unserved’ a census block that is in fact served. Waiting for the availability of more granular data before moving forward with any part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would only further disadvantage the millions of Americans that we know do not have access to digital opportunity,” the agency noted in its fact sheet.

And in a nod to criticism about predecessor program the Connect America Fund – which subsidized “broadband” connectivity at speeds of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps, or speeds so low that the FCC does not even consider them to meet the definition of “broadband” – Pai highlighted the requirement of 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“We also want to prioritize the deployment of broadband networks that will meet the needs of tomorrow as well as today,” Pai said in the blog post.

“Congress has called on the commission to fund sustainable and forward-looking networks that will stand the test of time. I agree. That's why, in addition to more than doubling the minimum speed required of bidders in the Connect America Phase II auction, I'm proposing a significant additional measure to favor the deployment of faster services. Once the reverse auction in Phase I hits the clearing amount of $16 billion, a bid to provide faster service to an area will automatically be chosen over a competing bid to provide slower service to that same area.”

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