The Federal Communications Commission plans to invest about $20.4 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, a move the agency says will add high-speed internet service in about 4 million homes and businesses.

The billions will be part of a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced at the White House on Friday. The push comes as part of an effort to build out 5G infrastructure across the country and increase access to rural broadband through a bevy of programs. Some of those programs — like USDA’s ReConnect program — are created by new appropriations from Congress; others, like this one, repurpose funds from existing areas to address a different issue.

“What this is, is basically a natural evolution of some of the existing universal service programs that the FCC has already been running, but with a little bit of a rebranding around that,” Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

“It’s not new money,” she added. “I think that’s the important thing for people to realize. This money is already money that’s been in this pot on the Universal Service Fund program side, it’s really being repositioned.”

An FCC spokesman tells Agri-Pulse the program – which is still subject to public comment and commission approval – will be “technology neutral, open to cable, rural electric coops, (telecommunications companies), fixed wireless, or whoever.” The plan is designed to replace the Connect America Fund Phase II funding, which expires in 2020 and has a one-year transition period. 

New or not, more than $20 billion to address rural connectivity dwarfs previous government investments. The ReConnect program, by contrast, was started with $600 million. But there’s still much to be learned about how the money will be spent and who will be eligible to receive it.

Bloomfield doesn’t expect that clarity “for the next couple of months, but that doesn’t mean we won’t all be thinking about what we think would be the best way to have this new program work.”


Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA

In announcing the opportunity fund, Pai also announced “the largest spectrum auction in our nation’s history,” the third such auction for 5G spectrum. That will occur in December, giving companies a chance to bid for 3,400 megahertz in three different bands of spectrum.

“For those who aren’t wireless experts, that’s a lot of spectrum,” Pai emphasized.

While the 5G auction and opportunity fund were announced in a joint announcement, Bloomfield and others don’t necessarily see the speedier signal as the rural broadband silver bullet. Full conversion to the technology will likely require new infrastructure on the company side and new technology on the consumer side, something that will take time.

“I think we’ve got to be honest about the fact that even some of the largest carriers in the world are just now trialing cities like Minneapolis,” she said. “It’s going to take a little bit longer to get out to rural markets.”

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