The FCC Plan for Better Rural Cellular Coverage

The FCC recently released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that restarts an initiative to improve rural cellular coverage. The proposed FCC funding is for $9 billion to create a 5G Fund to subsidize the construction of rural 5G cell sites. These funds would be paid out over multiple years from the Universal Service Fund.

I’ve been working around the country with rural counties, and the lack of cellular coverage is often on par as a local issue with the lack of broadband. Huge numbers of people don’t have cell coverage at their homes and don’t have the outdoor cell coverage that everybody else takes for granted.

The FCC first proposed this in 2020, but the initiative came to a sudden halt when it became obvious that the large cellular carriers had provided maps that substantially overstated where they have coverage. It might seem counterintuitive for the big cellular carriers to overstate coverage for a program that wants to pay to build cell towers, but smaller cellular carriers said the purpose of the overstatements was to lock them out of the FCC funding. The FCC largely agreed and killed plans for the program until it got better maps.

Cellular carriers must now participate in the twice-annual broadband mapping that is required for ISPs. The FCC must believe that the maps are now better.

The NPRM starts by asking if the original concept of using a reverse auction to award the funding is the best approach. This is a case where a reverse auction might make a lot of sense. A cellular carrier that asks for the least amount of funding for a given rural tower location would get the funding. I assume that most winners are going to welcome other wireless carriers to use the towers, so it might not be that important who wins each location.

The bidding is going to be more complicated than a simple subsidy per location. The FCC is asking if it should consider factors like the miles of roads and the number of homes and businesses around each proposed site. The FCC is also asking how they might aggregate bids for multiple cell sites in a region rather than having bids required for each cell site.

The NPRM also asks about several technical issues, such as if the 5G Fund should favor the deployment of open radio access network (O-RAN) technology.

The FCC is also asking if the availability of landline broadband should be considered. This makes a lot of sense because of the huge amount of money being spent on BEAD and other broadband grants that will mean a proliferation of rural fiber that can provide backhaul to newly constructed towers. This fund should not be used to construct fiber if it’s already built or is soon coming.

It will be interesting to see if the FCC opens the 5G Fund to local governments and not just to companies in the cellular or tower industries. I know several counties that have built towers hoping to expand broadband and cellular coverage, and there are many other county governments that see the lack of towers as vital to their economic success.

There is a tool that might help rural areas qualify for the funding. The FCC is gathering cellular speed tests to document where coverage is poor. The speed tests can only be done using the FCC’s speed test app. Unfortunately, this app requires a lot of speed tests in a given neighborhood before the FCC will even consider the results. Local governments should or motivated individuals should consider undertaking an effort to collect many speed tests with the app in the areas with the worst coverage.

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