Jonathan Spalter

Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: Ready, Set, Go

Broadband is essential. It lifts our economy, strengthens our competitiveness and bolsters our security.

Yet even as we march toward a broadband connected future, we face a hard truth: for too many Americans, the transformative power of a high-speed internet connection remains stubbornly out of reach.

So when the FCC boldly announced the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) last year, I called it smart public policy and a down payment on the providers “digging trenches, pulling fiber and connecting Americans to the world’s most modern, high-speed communications network.”

After nine months of hard work, today the FCC adopted final rules for the $16 billion first phase of RDOF that will eventually distribute essential funds to as many as six million rural homes and businesses. While we review the details, my take on RDOF’s impact: this could be a game changer for rural connectivity.

Why? A federal partnership on this scale – with rules that leverage the billions invested by America’s broadband providers over many generations – could advance the shared goals of innovators and policymakers: narrow the digital divide, maximize rural deployment and target the truly unserved.

Here’s a look at what makes RDOF work:

Literally lays the groundwork for wired broadband and 5G

Delivering the potential of 5G and other innovations requires the country to scale its broadband infrastructure. Put another way: we must invest mightily to ensure fiber optic cable exists throughout rural America. This fiber will literally be the backbone of our connected future.

Investing in lower quality, high latency internet that won’t actually create any new infrastructure deployment (I’m talking about satellite service) will not enable the reliability and speeds for next generation technologies like precision agriculture, connected cars and IoT.

The final order prioritizes fiber-based broadband, an inherently faster, more reliable service for consumers. RDOF will ensure more fiber exists throughout the country’s communications network and builds the bridge to 5G in rural America.

Creates a smooth transition for rural consumers and providers alike

This is the first time the FCC will enable new competitors to build networks where existing providers have already built infrastructure with universal service funding. We urged the FCC to ensure clear and specific lines of transition between providers currently offering services in a rural area and a new provider who may win funding in that existing territory.

RDOF creates a smooth transition and clarifies the obligations of all providers who receive support starting on day one. Why is this important? Without an orderly transition plan, the shift to RDOF support would leave the companies that currently serve these same rural consumers in the lurch.

Sets rural America up for connected success

With finite federal funds, it was critical for the FCC to structure RDOF rules sodollars are actually directed to broadband deployment and infrastructure. That’s why the FCC was wise to focus on crafting practical speed tiers and sensible financing rules in RDOF.

Also wisely, the FCC worked hard to strike a balance in shaping its Letter of Credit requirements that will do more to encourage broader participation while maintaining guardrails to mitigate risk to the program. This is a good step forward for broadband providers and the communities and customers we serve. We especially appreciate Commissioner Carr’s leadership in shaping a path forward that will maximize participation in this important auction.

The rules also created a new speed tier of 50 mbps download/5 mbps upload – a sweet spot for many fixed broadband providers. Taken together, the FCC has made it possible to compete and deliver forward-looking broadband across a large swath of scarcely populated areas.

USTelecom members built the high-speed communications networks that connect more rural Americans to the internet than any other industry segment – by far. They are excited to compete for RDOF support and continue leading the way by connecting more American consumers.

We still have work to do on two issues. First, fixing our obsolete broadband maps by introducing technology and granular data. We’re already working with the FCC to get its Digital Opportunity Data Collection right. Second, we need to ensure areas that may not be won in the RDOF auction receive adequate support.

After all, broadband connectivity is the 21st century’s indispensable resource, and our commitment is to bring that resource to every corner of the country. That can be tough and expensive work, but with a federal partner like the FCC, which shares our belief in the essential nature of broadband, bringing quality connectivity to the most remote parts of the country is finally in sight.