uscapitolThe Rural Broadband Acceleration Act introduced in the House of Representatives would enable service providers that commit to promptly deploy gigabit broadband to unserved rural areas to access funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in advance of other network operators.

A press call for reporters with bill sponsors Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) today focused on the need for broadband in rural areas that has become even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although participants offered only basic information about what the bill would do, the bill was subsequently released.

As Clyburn put it, the bill essentially tells the FCC to “speed up what you’re already planning to do.”

Based on comments from the briefing and from a reading of the bill, here’s what Telecompetitor readers need to know about the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act.

Key points of the bill:

The FCC would be directed to use the March 17 list of areas eligible for the Phase 1 RDOF auction, which has a total budget of $16 billion.

The commission also would be directed to maintain the planned short-form application process for the auction but would give applicants the option of indicating whether they would commit to begin deploying gigabit service on a more accelerated timeline using funding based on the reserve price for the auction. As a summary of the bill explains, “the reserve price is the mount of support the FCC has calculated to build, operate and maintain a gigabit passive optical network.”

Between June 30 and September, awards would be made to some of those applicants making those commitments. Awards would be made for areas where only one applicant makes those commitments. As the bill summary explains, “Since these bidders will win anyway, it is sensible to allow those with shovel-ready projects to jump the line so that they could begin construction as soon as possible.”

Areas awarded in this manner would be removed from the Phase 1 auction and funding associated with them would be removed, in part, from the Phase 1 auction and, in part, from the Phase 2 auction. The Phase 1 auction, scheduled to begin in October, would continue as planned.

The gigabit awardees would be required to begin deploying and offering service promptly “such as initial construction within six months and initial service availability within one year,” the summary states.

Rural Electric Company Support
Also on hand for today’s press briefing were representatives of rural electric companies, including one serving Upton’s congressional district, which suggests that those companies may have pushed for the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act to be introduced.

That’s not surprising, considering that rural electric companies were big winners in the Connect America Fund CAF II rural broadband funding auction and many of them bid to deploy gigabit service with less funding than price cap carriers were offered to deploy service at speeds of just 10 /1 Mbps.

A press release from the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) anticipates a different group of providers would be the early funding winners, however. The RDOF auction targets unserved areas where the incumbent carrier is one of the larger price cap carriers, and WISPA appears to be referencing those carriers in its statement that the bill would favor “providers who have historically been absent from the effort to erase the digital divide” and “reward players who have failed to bring service to unserved Americans.”

The WISP industry organization raises a good point — that fixed wireless can be quickly deployed — but the requirement to deliver gigabit service could be challenging for WISPs to meet.

Considering that the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act is not asking for new funding, simply changing the rules for how to award funding already committed, it would appear to have a reasonable chance of gaining support.

Updated later on May 28 with additional information from the bill

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