Many Americans in rural areas could receive high-speed internet connections through a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund proposed by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. 

The money will be available over 10 years, with the first phase of $16 billion awarded through a reverse auction scheduled for sometime later this year, FCC officials told reporters on Wednesday.

The plan is designed to be “technology-neutral,” an FCC official told reporters. “We designed this program to encourage a wide variety of entrants,” he said, which could include electric utilities, cable companies and telecommunications firms.

The plan builds on “the successful model from the 2018 Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which allocated $1.488 billion to deploy broadband networks to more than 700,000 unserved rural homes and businesses across 45 states,” the FCC said.

The first phase of the RDOF will target areas wholly unserved by speeds of 25/3 Mbps, as identified by current FCC maps, which officials said were accurate enough to move forward with that phase of the RDOF. About 6 million homes and businesses would be eligible under Phase I.

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FCC has been criticized for using its existing data maps to identify gaps in broadband service. In some cases, the data show partially served census blocks as “served.” But “waiting for the availability of more granular data before moving forward with any part of the [RDOF] would only further disadvantage the millions of Americans that we know do not have access to digital opportunity,” the commission said.

The second phase of the program would target census blocks that are partially served by 25/3 Mbps speeds. To determine eligible areas, FCC said it would use a new “granular broadband mapping approach” known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

"Once the reverse auction hits the clearing price, where there is more than one bid to serve the same area, the bidder in the faster-speed tier would be declared the winner,” the FCC said.

More specifics on the auction will be available Thursday when the rules due for a vote are released, FCC officials said. The commission will vote on the plan Jan. 30. 

“This new fund would target rural areas across the country where residents currently lack access to adequate broadband and would deploy high-speed broadband to millions of rural Americans in an efficient and effective manner," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. 

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