wireless towerSome rural areas could be left without wireless service if the FCC approves the latest proposal for the Connect America Mobility Fund Phase II, cautions the Rural Wireless Association.

Some wireless carriers in high-cost rural areas currently receive funding through the traditional high-cost universal service fund, which also covers landline carriers, but moving forward the plan is to create separate funds for mobile and fixed service. RWA’s concerns come as the FCC gets set to vote next week on the mobility fund. The term “Phase II” has been applied to that fund to differentiate it from a previous one-time program that awarded funding to a relatively small number of wireless carriers through a reverse auction process to test the concept of using that type of auction to award funding.

Mobility Fund Phase II
Mobility Fund Phase II is expected to direct Universal Service dollars to high-cost rural areas where no unsubsidized competitor offers service at speeds of at least 5 Mbps downstream/ 1 Mbps upstream, the RWA notes in a letter sent to the FCC Tuesday. Qualifying areas are expected to be included in a reverse auction that will award funding to the network operator that agrees to bring service at speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps for the lowest amount of support.

One of RWA’s concerns is that it could take winning bidders a few years to build the new network and if the winner does not currently provide some type of service in the area, there is a danger that all current carriers could pull out before the new network is available. Current FCC plans call for cutting off universal service funding to non-winning carriers beginning January 1, 2018, explained RWA General Counsel Caressa D. Bennet in a phone call with Telecompetitor.

Another concern pertains to areas where voice over LTE has not been deployed. If all but one provider pulls out of the market (one that uses either CDMA or GSM for voice), half of consumers nationwide would be left without voice service or emergency services in those areas, RWA explains in its letter. RWA notes that it is aware of four rural wireless carriers whose service areas could experience this problem.

The RWA letter argues that problems such as these could be avoided if the FCC would adopt a longer transition period. The association argues that a longer period for all carriers is appropriate because carriers have been expecting the FCC to follow the plan specified in the USF/ Transformation Order that called for a phase-down of support over a period of years and have invested in their networks accordingly.

In areas ineligible for Mobility Phase II funding, or where a supported carrier does not win, RWA recommends that the phase-out extend over a full five-year period, with the support level stepping down gradually each year.

Inconsistent Target Speeds
RWA also argues against the plan to target support only to areas where no unsubsidized competitor offers mobile service at speeds of at least 5 Mbps downstream/ 1 Mbps upstream, even though the required speed for the new deployments is 10/1 Mbps. The danger is that a carrier that currently receives subsidies and that offers 10/1 Mbps service could be forced out of business if those subsidies are lost, RWA explains. And if the service that the unsubsidized competitor offers is at a slower speed, consumers in that area would actually see the level of service available to them decline.