Rural Americans are closer to receiving high-speed internet after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to move ahead with a $20.4 billion plan to boost broadband connectivity in underserved areas.

The FCC voted Thursday to roll out the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The program which is supported by the Univerisal Service Fund, would award money over a ten-year period to target “gigabit speed broadband networks in areas that lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service,” FCC's download and upload speed benchmarks for fixed broadband service. Some 6 million homes and businesses are expected to be eligible under the first phase. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission must target limited funds to bring broadband to those who are not served. 

“That means limiting our efforts to areas that do not have broadband and where there are no current federal and state programs,” he said. Pai called the fund FCC’s “boldest step yet” to ensure digital opportunity reaches all Americans.

Some $16 billion would be awarded in the first phase through a competitive reverse auction scheduled for some time later this year. First-phase bidding would target census blocks that FCC data show are unserved by 25/3 Mbps broadband service.

Pai and Commissioners Brendan Carr and Mike O’Reilly, who are all three Republicans, voted to approve the plan. Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, who are Democrats, supported the plan but dissented in part. 

The Commission has been heavily criticized for the accuracy of its broadband coverage maps, which are used determine which areas of the country are served with broadband. Rosenworcel used this rationale in explaining her vote. 

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“This is not the broadband plan we need,” she said. “It is not guided by data. It is guided by a desire to rush out the door, claim credit, and pronounce our nation’s broadband problem solved.”

However, Rosenworcel noted she has seen communities across the country fighting for connectivity.

“I support the impulse behind this decision, but I believe in too many ways, this effort falls far short of what we need,” she said. 

Rural groups and broadband supporters praised the FCC for moving forward with the plan.

“America’s electric co-ops are optimistic that the auction rules will lead to meaningful expansion of broadband access in rural America,” National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson said in a statement.

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association CEO Shirley Bloomfield said today’s vote “offers great promise” to deliver the best possible voice and broadband services in unserved areas.

The remaining $4.4 billion of the $20.4 billion would be set aside for a second phase which would target partially served census blocks and areas who did not receive funding in the first phase.

To determine eligible areas in phase two, FCC said it would use a new “granular broadband mapping approach” known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

The RDOF plan builds on the model from the 2018 Connect America Fund Phase II auction. That fund allocated $1.48 billion to deploy broadband networks to more than 700,000 unserved rural homes and businesses across 45 states. The Department of Agriculture also has a broadband infrastructure program of its own, the ReConnect program, which will begin accepting applications for another round of funding on Friday. 

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