FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed that the commission scrap plans for a Mobility Fund II reverse auction and instead reallocate the funding intended for that auction to go toward a Rural 5G Fund that would help cover the cost of deploying 5G to rural areas.
The total budget for the fund would be $9 billion over 10 years, which would be comprised of $4.53 billion repurposed from the Mobility Fund and additional funding to be raised through the Universal Service Fund program, explained FCC senior officials on a call with reporters today.
The officials also revealed that the proposal to scrap plans for Mobility Fund II was based, in part, on drive testing conducted by the commission that showed that data submitted by carriers about where LTE service is already available is inaccurate. That auction would have targeted rural areas lacking LTE.
FCC Rural 5G Fund Proposal
The Rural 5G Fund proposal will come in the form of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to be circulated within the FCC. In response to a timing question from Telecompetitor, an FCC official said in an email that the commission expects to vote on the NPRM early next year but did not provide an estimate of when the proposed reverse auction to award funding would occur. In a reverse auction, funding goes toward the network operator that agrees to deploy service to an area at the lowest level of government support.
Other key details about the fund have yet to be determined. The officials noted that target areas will include those that would be less likely to get 5G without government support but added that the NPRM will not specify how that would be determined. Instead, the NPRM will seek comments about how to do that.
Carriers receiving money through the Rural 5G Fund would be required to deploy service meeting international 5G standards at a certain minimum speed, but that speed also has yet to be specified, officials said.
The proposal also calls for $1 billion of funding to go toward precision agriculture but there, too, details remain to be resolved.
Coverage Map Problems
Today’s FCC announcement about the proposed Rural 5G Fund was accompanied by a report prepared by the commission in response to concerns about the LTE coverage maps submitted by wireless carriers to determine areas eligible for the Mobility Fund II auction.
FCC staffers conducted thousands of speed tests and concluded that the maps “did not reflect on-the-ground experience in many instances.” Maps from three carriers – Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular – in many cases showed that LTE covered areas where drive testing showed speeds below 5 Mbps.
The officials said today that the commission did not find enough evidence to assert that the misreporting was deliberate. Instead, they said that the maps were based on flawed, but industry standard, propagation models.
The report also found deficiencies in coverage data reported by those challenging the data submitted by the carriers. Challengers tended to overstate the inaccuracy of the carriers’ data.
The officials said the commission expects to establish a procedure to verify that those network operators receiving funding through the Rural 5G Fund ultimately deploy service meeting required specifications.
As for the additional funding proposed for the fund, the officials noted that spending in the overall USF program has been flat for several years and said there is room to increase spending to support the proposed fund. It’s worth noting that some people are bound to question that, considering the steep rate at which the USF contribution factor has been climbing. Potentially the proposed increase also could fuel efforts to change how funding is raised.