As Congress looks at crafting another potential coronavirus relief package, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai said funding for rural broadband should be at the top of the list.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Pai discussed the importance of closing the “digital divide” by moving forward with the commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion two-phase program to build high-speed internet in underserved areas over 10 years. Providers must meet certain criteria and provide fixed broadband speeds of no less than 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. He also talked about the need to increase funding for the commission to move ahead with other rural broadband initiatives. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
1. FCC is launching the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide funding for rural broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Some in Congress want you to accelerate the program. But where do you stand now and what plans do you have for it?
Pai: What we are focused on doing in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is moving as quickly as we can to get rural broadband into unserved parts of the country, and I have heard from some advocates, they would like to accelerate the funding that’s available through RDOF as it’s called. The problem with that is, to change course at this point would require a number of administrative steps and ironically would push back the ultimate distribution of those funds, and that's part of the reason why I've expressed some concern about going down that road. What we've done now is to create a near final set of eligible areas that people can bid on starting on October 29. We'll be taking short-form applications from bidders, and from October on, we'll see some bidding hopefully that has enabled millions of people to get high-speed, high-quality broadband for the first time.
2. When looking at this program, there's about $20.4 billion total but in the first phase there's $16 billion. As far as that first phase goes, how does that work, can you extend funding or push it beyond phase one?
The entire Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a $20.4 billion program that will target over 6 million homes and businesses. Phase one, which focuses on unserved areas, is $16 billion. That's the reverse auction starting October 29. Now, $16 billion represents our estimate of what it would cost to serve those up to 6 million locations across the country, and if for whatever reason there's not a winning bid in that area, or if the winning bid is actually lower for some reason, then any money that is saved, so to speak, will roll over into phase two of the auction. Phase two will cover both the unserved areas that didn't get a bid in phase one, as well as any partially served areas. Those are areas which might have some 25 megabit-per-second service with some where there's a central block without that type of service. So that's pretty much how we came up with the 16/4 split. And again, each of those numbers can be fluid depending on how the bidding goes.
3. On this RDOF program, some have criticized the program for moving ahead without more reliable coverage maps. What do you say to those who are saying that these maps need to be developed first, rather than moving ahead with this program?
I would say that is a recipe for perpetuating the digital divide for months and years to come. Saying that we need to wait for months or years to develop perfect maps is not acceptable to me. We know there are parts of Missouri, parts of Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Michigan, all these other states that are unserved and waiting until we figure out whether there's a subdivision in wealthy Fairfax County that might not have service, to me that's not a reason to hold up the entire country's need to get this broadband deployment funding. So, we're going to keep pushing ahead, getting those unserved areas connected. And in the meantime, last August the FCC stood up what we call Digital Opportunity Data Collection, a granular mapping effort to get much more precise maps. The only problem with that is, Congress passed the Broadband Data Act, which not only requires us to create these granular maps, which is fine, but also deprived us of funding to be able to do it. And so, we can’t move ahead on this great mapping effort at all, unless (or) until Congress gives us the money we need, to be able to implement this act.
4. You had started in March the Keep Americans Connected pledge, where these providers basically waive things like internet fees and provide Wi-Fi hot spots. But the challenge is there is a cost that comes with doing this. What do you think Congress needs to do to help these providers, or do you have any solutions or suggestions as they look to craft this next Senate stimulus package?
I really want to salute 785 companies that have stood up and have delivered for American consumers by taking the Keep Americans Connected pledge as it was extended to June 30. The commitments they made not to cut off consumers, to waive late fees, (and) to open Wi-Fi hot spots has been tremendous, especially in rural parts of the country. And so hats off to them for doing that and going forward, but what I've encouraged them to do in July is not to cut off any consumers but to work with consumers in terms of payment plans over the course of months and the like to ensure that there's a chance for consumers to catch up. In the meantime, doing that during the month of July will give Congress a chance, should they choose to do so, to think about legislation that would help some of those companies — especially the smaller ones serving smaller markets — to be able to continue to provide service. No company can continue to provide service for free indefinitely. I think there's a role for Congress to play, and I look forward to working with Congress and figuring out what, if any, solution they might try to get across the finish line.
5. USDA also has the ReConnect program, building out broadband infrastructure across parts of the country. How do you make sure that when someone comes to apply that they're not double dipping or you're putting money somewhere that could go to someone who applied for an FCC program?
This is part of the reason why my preference has always been for Congress to invest all of those funding programs, all that authorization in the FCC, to avoid that. But obviously, USDA does have this funding through the ReConnect program. We are plugged in and have been for a while, to make sure that we aren't essentially duplicating each other's efforts. Secretary (of Agriculture Sonny) Perdue and I have a good relationship, as do our teams, and so we share information so that if we know they're subsidizing a particular company to build broadband in an area, we're not going to give that same company another bite of the apple with another round of funding. That's fiscally conservative, which I think is the important thing to do. It also gives companies a much stronger incentive to do the job efficiently when they know they're only paying once for it.
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6. What are the lessons that we’ve learned from this COVID-19 pandemic?
I think to me number one might seem obvious to some but for years, it hasn't been, which is that the digital divide has to be our top priority. My first full day in office, that's exactly what I told the FCC staff and I continue to believe it now. Especially during the pandemic, folks who don't have broadband — they can't work as effectively from home. Their kids can’t do remote learning. They can't benefit from telehealth. If they're on farms and ranches, they can't use precision agriculture. These are the kinds of things you can't do without broadband, and so to me at least, it underscores the importance of moving ahead with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (and) moving 5G out to every part of the country, making sure that every American can benefit from telehealth. There's so much we can do, and it has nothing to do with politics, it just has to do with delivering value for the American consumer, and I'm hopeful that in the time to come, even if the pandemic proceeds, we'll keep our eyes focused on the prize which is making sure that every American has access to what I call digital opportunity.
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