Details of plans under which up to USD9 billion would be distributed via the Universal Service Fund to support the deployment of 5G connectivity across rural America have been published by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With the regulatory body having adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on establishing the ‘5G Fund for Rural America’, it said that this fund would ‘help ensure that rural Americans enjoy the same benefits from [the US’] increasingly digital economy as their urban counterparts – more than 200 million of whom already have access to major providers’ 5G networks – and would include a special focus on deployments that support precision agriculture’.
As per the FCC’s proposals it confirms it intends to make up to USD8 billion available in Phase I, with this funding to support the rollout of 5G networks in rural areas that are unlikely to see a ‘timely’ deployment without such support or as benefit from deployment commitments that were conditions of its approval for the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. The proposed 5G Fund budget also includes USD680 million reserved to support 5G networks serving Tribal lands as part of Phase I. Meanwhile, a second phase would target at least USD1 billion in support to bring wireless connectivity to ‘harder to serve and higher cost areas, including farms and ranches’, with a view to helping facilitate the adoption of connected precision agriculture technologies.
According to the FCC, the 5G Fund for Rural America will use a competitive reverse auction format to award funding for wireless broadband services, and it is seeking comments on two different possible approaches to identifying eligible areas for the Phase I reverse auction. The first approach would see an auction held in 2021 by defining eligible areas based on current data sources that identify areas as particularly rural and thus in the greatest need of universal service support; funding would prioritise areas that have historically lacked 3G or 4G connectivity. Alternatively, the FCC is considering the option of delaying the 5G Fund Phase I auction until at least 2023, after collecting and processing improved mobile broadband coverage data through the Commission’s new Digital Opportunity Data Collection.