Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) has asked the FCC for information about how the agency’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction planned for this fall would be impacted by various legislative proposals for speeding up the allocation of funding, including a proposal to make awards at 100% of the reserve price in any areas where pre-auction filings indicate there is only one potential bidder willing to provide symmetrical gigabit-speed service.
The FCC is set to vote next week on a draft public notice (PN) laying out procedures for the RDOF Phase I auction, which, among other things, would set an Oct. 22 start date for the auction (TR Daily, May 19). The auction is intended to distribute up to $16 billion in support over a decade. The draft PN also calls for the short-form application (FCC Form 183) window to open on July 1 and close on July 15; long-form applications, as is typical for FCC auctions, would not be due until after the auction.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai dated yesterday and released today, Chairman Wicker said that “given the current increased need for reliable internet during the pandemic, broadband funding, particularly through the RDOF program, may not come soon enough. I have heard from a number of Mississippi broadband providers that are ready to begin deploying in unserved areas, but cannot act until they receive this critical support. This situation is not unique to Mississippi.”
Chairman Wicker noted that “Congress is now considering a proposal that would accelerate the distribution of the RDOF resources to eligible providers,” a reference to the proposed Rural Broadband Acceleration Act (HR 7022), a bipartisan measure introduced by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.) (TR Daily, May 28).
“Under this proposal, the FCC would be required to allocate the RDOF monies to broadband providers that are expected to be the sole bidder to deliver gigabit-speed service in a census block or census block groups before the reverse auction scheduled for October 22, 2020. Winning bidders would have to commit to beginning construction within six months of funding authorization and make service available to consumers within one year of authorization,” Chairman Wicker noted.
He acknowledged that accelerating the distribution of support could cause issues for the FCC. “I recognize the Commission’s legal and procedural constraints to modify approved rules, maximize taxpayer dollars, and act in the public interest. I also recognize the need for adequate time to review and process applications and conduct a fair, competitive, and efficient auction,” he wrote.
Chairman Wicker requested a response to a series of questions and information requests by June 12, including an explanation of the FCC’s “rationale for processing long-form applications after the auction has been completed”; any additional resources the FCC would need to meet the bill’s proposed July 31 deadline for processing long-form applications; and the impact on the overall auction structure and census blocks that could be served if applicants that are the only qualified applicant to propose offering symmetrical gigabit service in an area are awarded 100% of the reserve price.
“Please outline the process the FCC would have to follow under the Administrative Procedure Act to modify the framework of the auction to meet accelerated deadlines for processing long-form applications and making awards before the commencement of the auction,” Chairman Wicker added.
He also asked when an updated list of eligible areas would be available to the public.
The language in the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act was drawn from the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) (HR 6800), a $3 trillion COVID-19 legislative response package that passed the House on May 15 but that, given the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and other Republicans in the Senate, is not viewed as having any chance of moving forward in its current form.
USTelecom President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Spalter has argued in a recent blog post that the RDOF auction language from HEROES Act could “upend” the “carefully designed” Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) aimed at accomplishing that goal. He said that the language “circumvents the October auction to the benefit of a select group of bidders by changing the rules late in the game after a transparent FCC process establishing auction rules” (TR Daily, May 28). —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
MainStory: FederalNews Congress FCC BroadbandDeployment Covid19
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