Over the partial dissents of Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, the FCC today rejected various petitions to reconsider the approach it adopted earlier this year in its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) order to partnering with states that have broadband funding programs and to increase the minimum speeds to be supported under RDOF Phase I to 50 megabits per second downstream and 5 Mbps upstream.
The RDOF Phase I auction (Auction 904) is scheduled to begin on Oct. 29. It will award up to $16 billion in support to be used in census blocks that completely lack broadband service at speeds of 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks had also partially dissented from the public notice earlier this year setting the auction procedures, citing, among other things, the decision to proceed despite the flaws in the FCC's broadband maps (TR Daily, June 9).
The public notice "established a limited challenge process for parties to identify, in part, areas that had been awarded funding by a federal or state broadband subsidy to offer broadband service at 25/3 Mbps or better and for which funding has already been paid or a formal commitment has been executed," the FCC recalled in the order on reconsideration adopted Sept. 16 and released today in AU docket 20-34 and Wireline Competition dockets 19-126 and 10-90.
In the reconsideration order, the FCC did clarify certain aspects of its decisions regarding the eligibility of areas for RDOF Phase II, which will offer at least $2.4 billion in support for unserved locations within areas where there are other locations served by broadband.
The Illinois Office of Broadband and the Vermont Department of Public Service had asked the FCC to "reconsider its approach to partnering with states that have broadband funding programs," the Commissioner noted in the order.
"In addition, the Illinois Office of Broadband asks the Commission to increase the minimum speeds it will support in Auction 904 to 50/5 Mbps," the Commission said.
It denied the state agencies' requests, saying, "Excluding specific areas where states have already committed funding in exchange for enforceable deployment obligations is consistent with the Commission's universal service policy and will ensure that our scarce universal service resources are put to the best possible use by maximizing the unserved areas that will receive support through Auction 904 to deploy robust broadband service. However, we grant the Vermont Department of Public Service's request to clarify the process by which census blocks receiving support from a state broadband initiative to deploy broadband service of 25/3 Mbps or greater were removed from eligibility for Auction 904."
As for the change in supported speed requested by the Illinois agency, the FCC said that "[s]uch an approach would be contrary to the Commission's goal 'to target support and provide incentives to serve areas that are known to currently lack service at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps,' and potentially would prevent us from maximizing the benefits to consumers from the use of our finite universal service budget."
Heartland Telecommunications Company d/b/a Premier Communications had asked the FCC to clarify "whether it has definitively resolved the eligibility of areas for Phase II of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund."
The FCC said, "We clarify that our approach to eligible areas for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund does not prejudge the areas that may be eligible for Phase II. Indeed, the Commission expressly recognized that it was focusing on the Phase I eligible areas in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Order '[b]ecause we will have an additional opportunity to seek comment on how best to target Phase II support as we gather more granular data on where broadband has been actually deployed.' Thus, we conclude that it is appropriate to clarify that the Commission has not made a final decision on the scope of eligible areas for Phase II of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. To be clear, we do not affirmatively commit at this time to making the areas highlighted by Premier eligible for Phase II. We anticipate that, following the conclusion of Phase I and the ongoing Digital Opportunity Data Collection proceeding, we will seek additional comment on the Phase II framework. We expect that the lessons learned from Phase I, combined with the enhanced data gathered through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, will help to guide our decisions on multiple aspects of Phase II, including whether incumbent providers will be eligible to participate for ongoing support in certain areas."
In her separate statement, Commissioner Rosenworcel said that today's action compounds the problems caused by the FCC's decision to award nearly 80% of its broadband deployment budget for the next 10 years before it has fixed its broadband maps.
She said, "In this order on reconsideration, the FCC reaffirms its earlier decision to disqualify areas from the auction that are supported by state efforts and cut off state authorities interested in working with us. Specifically, it turns down requests from Vermont and Illinois to assist with disbursement expanding high-speed infrastructure in their states. To this end, it rejects the Vermont Department of Public Service's warning that the way the funds are flowing under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will have the opposite of their intended effect, slowing the dispersing of broadband dollars and resulting in 'less broadband buildout in the state overall.' Likewise, it rejects the efforts of the Illinois Office of Broadband to urge 'a stronger federal-state partnership [to] help coordinate state and federal broadband investment in order to maximize efficiency and minimize duplication.'
"This is unfortunate. We should have explored these kind of partnerships with Vermont, Illinois, and states across the country. After all, they understand with greater precision than we do in Washington where service is and is not in their own backyard. In other words, we should be encouraging states to work with us and not penalizing them for their efforts to bring broadband to communities that are struggling. We have this exactly backwards. For this reason, I dissent," she continued.
"At the risk of being technocratic, I want to note that in one limited respect I think this decision makes the right call. It chooses not to reach conclusions here about the second stage of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This part of today's decision has my support," Commissioner Rosenworcel concluded.
Commissioner Starks did not issue a separate statement. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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