FCC Chairman Ajit Pai plans to ask his fellow Commissioners to vote at their Jan. 30 meeting on a draft order to implement the 10-year, $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that the agency proposed last August, with the addition of a new speed tier for evaluating bids that industry had sought, as well as provisions aimed at encouraging deployment in tribal areas and areas that do not yet have services at 10 megabits per second downstream/1 Mbps upstream by increasing the reserve price for those areas.
Chairman Pai also plans to seek votes on items to address flexibility for communications assistants on VRS (video relay service) calls to work from home and smartphone compatibility with hearing aids, as well as votes on media streamlining and enforcement actions.
As contemplated in the notice of proposed rulemaking adopted last August, the RDOF support will be allocated in two phases through multi-round reverse auctions: $16 billion in funding for census blocks with no service at 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream would be distributed in the first auction expected to take place this year, a senior FCC official told reporters during a background briefing today, and the remainder would be distributed in a later auction after the FCC completes the Digital Data Opportunity Collection (DDOC) adopted at the same time as the RDOF NPRM (TR Daily, Aug. 1, 2019). The timing of the second auction will depend on the completion of the DDOC.
In a blog post today, Chairman Pai said, “Based on our initial estimates, almost 6 million homes and businesses in rural America would be eligible for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. And then, once we complete our efforts to update our broadband maps to more precisely identify connectivity gaps, we will move forward with Phase II, which will cover unserved households in census blocks where some households are served, as well as areas that don't receive funding in Phase I.”
He added, “We also want to prioritize the deployment of broadband networks that will meet the needs of tomorrow as well as today. Congress has called on the Commission to fund sustainable and forward-looking networks that will stand the test of time. I agree. That’s why, in addition to more than doubling the minimum speed required of bidders in the Connect America Phase II auction, I’m proposing a significant additional measure to favor the deployment of faster services. Once the reverse auction in Phase I hits the clearing amount of $16 billion, a bid to provide faster service to an area will automatically be chosen over a competing bid to provide slower service to that same area.”
The 50/5 speed tier added by the draft order is in addition to the 1 gigabit per second/100 Mbps, 100/20, and 25/3 speed tiers contemplated by the NPRM for comparing and weighting bids. A bid to provide service at a faster tier would win over a slower offering once the bids hit the clearing price, the FCC official said.
As Chairman Pai explained, that provision is aimed at addressing concerns expressed last month by a bipartisan group of 48 senators, including Senate communications, technology, innovation, and the Internet subcommittee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) about ensuring that the RDOF support goes to projects that will still meet consumers’ needs at the end of the 10-year funding term.
In a statement, the app developer trade association ACT said, “Today’s announcement by the FCC regarding the January meeting vote to establish the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a significant milestone in the Commission’s ongoing commitment to close the digital divide. Our members’ innovative applications and services—from smart agriculture to connected health—require the high speed, reliable broadband connections emphasized in this draft rule.”
ACT added, “Enabling funding for fixed wireless and other broadband technologies in rural areas is a forward-looking investment that will have meaningful outcomes for our small business members and the consumers they serve in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia. We look forward to continuing to work with the Commission on expanding broadband access for all Americans.”
In a statement, ACA said, “Over the past months, we along with other stakeholders and 48 U.S. Senators and more than 50 U.S. Representatives urged the Chairman to stay the course and ensure rural Americans get access to the same forward-looking, future-proof networks being deployed in more urban areas. Today, after just reading the Chairman’s blog, it looks like he’s going to deliver on his promise to give unserved consumers high-performance broadband, taking a major step to close the digital divide. ACA Connects looks forward to seeing the details and making this new program a reality.”
Regarding the VRS item, Chairman Pai said, “To improve the effectiveness of this vital service, the Commission launched a pilot program in 2017 to allow qualified sign-language interpreters to work as communications assistants from home workstations as opposed to requiring them to work at call centers. The pilot has shown that in-home interpreters can work as efficiently and effectively as those in call centers and that our safeguards can both impede waste, fraud, and abuse and maintain the privacy of communications. That's why I've proposed to my colleagues to make the at-home call-handling program permanent.”
Mr. Pai also announced that the Commission will consider a proposal to incorporate new American National Standards Institute technical specifications into its hearing-aid compatibility (HAC) rules.
The Chairman also said that the agency will consider an order in its media modernization initiative requiring that cable and satellite operators to deliver electronically required notices to broadcast TV stations.
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