FCC Proposes Rules for $20.4 Billion Broadband Grants

On August 2 the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes rules for the upcoming grant program that will award $20.4 billion for rural broadband. Since every FCC program needs a name, this grant program is now designated as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). An NPRM is theoretically only a list of suggestions by the FCC, and there is a comment period that will commence 30 days after the NPRM is posted in the Federal Register. However, realistically, the rules that are proposed in the NPRM are likely to be the rules of the grant program. Here are a few of the highlights:

Timing of Award. The FCC proposes awarding the money in two phases. The Phase I award will be awarded late next year and will award over $16 billion. The Phase II will award will follow and award the remaining $4.4 billion. I know a lot of folks were hoping for a $2 billion annual grant award – but most of the money will be awarded next year. Anybody interested in this program should already be creating a network design and a financial business plan because the industry resources to create business plans are going to soon be too busy to help.

The money will be paid out to grant recipients over 10 years, similar to the ACAM program for small telcos. Grant recipients need to understand the time value of money. If an ISP wins a $1 million grant and borrows money at a rate of 5.5% interest, then the actual value of the grant in today’s dollars is a little more than $750,000.

Areas Eligible for Award. The Phase I auction will only be awarded in areas that are wholly unserved using the definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps or faster. The areas covered can’t have anybody capable of getting broadband faster than that. The FCC is likely to publish a list of areas eligible for the Phase I grants. Unfortunately, the FCC will use its flawed mapping program to make this determination. This is likely to mean that many parts of the country that ought to be eligible for these grants might not be part of the program.

Phase II is likely to be targeted at areas that did not see awards in Phase I. One of the open questions in the NPRM that is not yet firm is the size of award areas. The NPRM asks if the minimum coverage area should be a census block or a county. It also asks if applicants can bundle multiple areas into one grant request.

The FCC is considering prioritizing areas it thinks are particularly needy. For example, it may give extra grant weighting to areas that don’t yet have 10/1 Mbps broadband. The FCC is also planning on giving extra weighting to some tribal areas.

Weighting for Technology. Like with the CAF II reverse auction, the grant program is going to try to give priority to faster broadband technologies. The FCC is proposing extra weighting for technologies that can deliver at least 100 Mbps and even more weighting for technologies that can deliver gigabit speeds. They are also proposing a grant disincentive for technologies with a latency greater than 100 milliseconds.

Use of Funds. Recipients will be expected to complete construction to 40% of the grant eligible households by the end of the third year, with 20% more expected annually and the whole buildout to be finished by the end of the sixth year.

Reverse Auction. The FCC is proposing a multi-round, descending clock reverse auction so that bidders who are willing to accept the lowest amount of subsidy per passing will win the awards. This is the same process used in the CAF II reverse auctions.

Overall Eligibility. It looks like the same rules for eligibility will apply as with previous grants. Applicants must be able to obtain Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status to apply, meaning they must be a facilities-based retail ISP. This will exclude entities such as open access networks where the network owner is a different entity than the ISP. Applicants will also need to have a financial track record, meaning start-up companies need not apply. Applicants must also provide proof of financing.

Measurement Requirements. Grant winners will be subject to controlled speed tests to see if they are delivering what was promised. The FCC is asking if they should keep the current test – where only 70% of customers must meet the speed requirements for an applicant to keep full funding.

I see problems with a few of these requirements that I’ll cover in upcoming blogs.

$20.4 Billion in Broadband Funding?

Chairman Ajit Pai and the White House announced a new rural broadband initiative that will provide $20.4 billion over ten years to expand and upgrade rural broadband. There were only a few details in the announcement, and even some of them sound tentative. A few things are probably solid:

  • The money would be used to provide broadband in the price-cap service areas – these are the areas served by the giant telcos.
  • The FCC is leaning towards a reverse auction.
  • Will support projects that deliver at least 25/3 Mbps broadband.
  • Will be funded from the Universal Service Fund and will ‘repurpose’ existing funds.
  • The announcement alludes to awarding the money later this year, which would be incredibly aggressive.
  • This was announced in conjunction with the auction of millimeter wave spectrum – however this is not funded from the proceeds of that auction.

What might it mean to repurpose this from the Universal Service Fund?  The fund dispersed $8.7 billion in 2018. We know of two major upcoming changes to the USF disbursements. First. the new Mobility II fund to bring rural 4G service adds $453 million per year to the USF. Second. the original CAF II program that pays $1.544 billion annually  to the big telcos ends after 2020.

The FCC recently increased the cap on the USF to $11.4 billion. Everybody was scratching their head over that cap since it is so much higher than current spending. But now the number makes sense. If the FCC was to award $2.04 billion in 2020 for the new broadband spending, the fund would expand almost to that new cap. Then, in 2021 the fund would come back down to $9.6 billion after the end of CAF II. We also know that the Lifeline support subsidies have been shrinking every year and the FCC has been eyeing further cuts in that program. We might well end up with a fund by 2021 that isn’t much larger than the fund in 2018.

There are some obviously big things we don’t know. The biggest is the timing of the awards. Will this be a one-time auction for the whole $20.4 billion or a new $2 billion auction for each of the next ten years? This is a vital question. If there is an auction every year then every rural county will have a decent shot at the funding. That will give counties time to develop business plans and create any needed public private partnership to pursue the funding.

However, if the funding is awarded later this year in one big auction and then disbursed over ten years, then I predict that most of the money will go again to the big telcos – this would be a repeat of the original CAF II. That is my big fear. There was great excitement in rural America for the original CAF II program, but in the end that money was all given to the big telcos. The big telcos could easily promise to improve rural DSL to 25/3 Mbps given this kind of funding. They’d then have ten years to fulfill that promise. I find it worrisome that the announcement said that the funding could benefit around 4 million households – that’s exactly the number of households covered by the big telcos in CAF II.

What will be the study areas? The CAF II program awarded funding by county. Big study areas benefit the big telcos since anybody else chasing the money would have to agree to serve the same large areas. Big study areas means big projects which will make it hard for many ISPs to raise any needed matching finds for the grants – large study areas would make it impossible for many ISPs to bid.

My last concern is how the funds will be administered. For example, the current ReConnect funding is being administered by the RUS which is part of the Department of Agriculture. That funding is being awarded as part grants and part loans. As I’ve written many times, there are numerous entities that are unable to accept RUS loans. There are features of those loans that are difficult for government entities to accept. It’s also hard for a commercial ISP to accept RUS funding if they already carry debt from some other source. The $20.4 billion is going to be a lot less impressive if a big chunk of it is loans. It’s going to be disastrous if loans follow the RUS lending rules.

We obviously need to hear a lot more. This could be a huge shot in the arm to rural broadband if done properly – exactly the kind of boost that we need. It could instead be another huge giveaway to the big telcos – or it could be something in between. I know I tend to be cynical, but I can’t ignore that some of the largest federal broadband funding programs have been a bust. Let’s all hope my worries are unfounded.