rural landscape

The FCC will vote later this month on a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) seeking input on a proposal to establish higher speed goals for small rural providers that receive broadband funding through the Alternative Connect America Model (A-CAM) program.

The proposal was made by the A-CAM Broadband Coalition, a group of providers that receive funding through the program.

According to the FCC, 447 providers receive a combined $1.1 billion annually in A-CAM support, which runs through 2028 for most participants.

The proposal calls for A-CAM providers to deploy service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream – an increase from the minimum of 25/3 Mbps, or in some cases less, that is required today. In addition, the amount of funding per location would be increased.

Rethinking the A-CAM program would seem to make sense, considering that the $42.5 billion BEAD rural broadband funding program created in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act targets unserved and underserved areas, with unserved areas defined as those lacking 25/3 Mbps service and underserved areas defined as those lacking 100/20 Mbps service.

According to BEAD program rules, no funding can go toward underserved areas until all unserved areas have been addressed. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that an A-CAM provider could be in the midst of or planning a 25/3 Mbps build to meet the requirements of that program and once completed, the area would be considered underserved, according to the BEAD program, and possibly eligible for an overbuild just a few years later.

Providers receiving BEAD funding will be required to deploy service at speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps, which also suggests that the A-CAM speed target is due for a boost.

The A-CAM Broadband Coalition proposal also calls for making more locations eligible for funding based on certain rule changes and based on updated broadband availability data.

The current data overestimates broadband availability and the FCC is getting set to gather more detailed information from providers about where they have service available. An updated national broadband map is expected to be available later this year or early next year.

The FCC A-CAM Program

The FCC A-CAM program dates back to 2016, when small rural providers were offered the option of remaining on the traditional Universal Service Fund high-cost fund, which was based on embedded costs, or moving to the A-CAM program, which provided funding based on a cost model and had more ambitious deployment requirements.

A substantial portion of rural providers on the high-cost program opted for the A-CAM program, and in 2018, the commission again offered the providers the option of moving to A-CAM, and a substantial portion of those who had remained on the traditional program made the switch at that time.

One of the questions the FCC asks for feedback on in the draft NPRM is whether the A-CAM cost model, created at the time the program was established, should be revised. The commission notes, though, that creating a new model could delay the potential expansion of the program.

There are numerous additional details to the A-CAM Broadband Coalition proposal and to the proposed NPRM. Interested parties can find the draft NPRM at this link.

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