The FCC today adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on the 5G Fund for Rural America initially proposed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai back in December. The five FCC commissioners argued vociferously about the proposal at today’s monthly FCC meeting where the proposal was adopted, perhaps offering a preview of what the commission is likely to hear from commenters.

5G Fund for Rural America
The rural 5G fund proposal calls for up to $9 billion in funding to be awarded through a reverse auction process to help cover the costs of deploying 5G in rural areas. At least one billion of that money would go toward farms and ranches that are particularly difficult to serve, with the goal of supporting precision agriculture.

The auction process would be two-phase – and where the controversy comes in relates to which areas would be included in the first phase and when that auction would occur.

Although the commission gathered information from wireless operators about where the operators have LTE service available with the goal of identifying target areas lacking service, that information was shown to be inaccurate. The commission is undertaking a new data collection, with rules aimed at making the data more accurate, but doesn’t expect to have results available in time to conduct an auction based on that data until 2023.

As an alternative, the commission proposed targeting rural areas based on public data sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey data – an approach the commission said would enable phase one of the auction to commence next year.

In either case, the second phase of the 5G Fund for Rural America auction would be based on the updated data collected from network operators.

FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks had strong words for that proposal at today’s monthly FCC meeting.

“This do-over has serious flaws,” said Rosenworcel. “We are at risk of making the same mistakes again. It presents a false choice. It suggests either we can do it fast or with accuracy.”

She added that “we can do two things at once,” arguing that the commission “needs maps before money and data before deployment.”

Starks also referenced a “false choice between speed and accuracy” and said that to base the first phase auction on the census data would be “an insult to those who invested money in the challenge process.”

The latter reference relates to entities that invested substantial time and money in what was a demanding process to challenge carrier-submitted LTE availability data. Rosenworcel noted, for example, that a challenger in Vermont drove 6,000 miles within the state and conducted 180,000 speed tests using six devices and six service plans.

An association representing a key stakeholder group also has criticized the proposal to use the census data to determine areas eligible for the first phase of the 5G Fund for Rural America auction. After the FCC earlier this month released maps showing areas that would tentatively be eligible for that auction, the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents many rural wireless carriers, released a statement saying that the maps “bear little relationship to where there is or is not actually coverage.”

In a prepared statement released today, CCA President and CEO Steven Berry said the NPRM adopted today is “nothing short of disappointing.” He, too, argued that the FCC should be able to obtain more accurate data more quickly.

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