The $9 billion rural 5G fund first announced by the FCC back in December 2019 is now official, with establishment of an FCC docket. By way of a February 3rd public notice, FCC GN Docket No. 20-32, officially labeled “Establishing a 5G Fund for Rural America,” is now open.

The fund will offer $9 billion over a ten-year period, presumably through a reverse auction format, although formal rules for how the fund will be administered haven’t been determined yet. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) will begin the process of establishing the final fund rules. Within the $9 billion, the FCC has also initially proposed $1 billion be allocated towards enabling precision agriculture applications.

The fund aims to help support the expansion of 5G networks to rural America, a particularly expensive proposition. Early 5G networks have targeted dense urban populations and generally require more infrastructure than previous generations of wireless, including considerable fiber backhaul investments. These expensive infrastructure requirements will be exacerbated in less dense rural markets.

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“We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will. In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in the original announcement about the Rural 5G fund. “Moreover, America’s farms and ranches have unique wireless connectivity needs, as I’ve seen across the country.”

This funding is not totally new funding, per se. About half of it is being reallocated from the Mobility Fund II, which originally was earmarked to expand 4G LTE in rural areas. That program has been under significant scrutiny since it was revealed that rural LTE 4G coverage data submitted by wireless carriers was inaccurate. Considerable controversy regarding this accuracy question has ensued.

With an opening of the official docket, interested parties can begin filing comments and ex parte communications with FCC officials. An official NPRM should soon follow.

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