Federal Opportunities for Funding WNC Broadband Deployment

There are four federal programs that may provide an opportunity to find funding to help solve our WNC broadband infrastructure problem. These programs are:

  • Rural Development Opportunity Fund
  • FCC Proposed Fund for 5G in Rural America
  • T-Mobile 5G Commitment for the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger
  • Broadband funds in Infrastructure bill for COVID-19 Recovery

Summary of FCC/DOJ Led Opportunities for Better Broadband for WNC

WhoWhatWhenWhereHow MuchNotes
RDOFService ProvidersReverse AuctionStartPhase 1- Census Blocks with no BB
Phase 2- TBD
Phase 1- $16 B
Phase 2- $4 B
5GCellular Service ProvidersReverse AuctionTBDPoor service areas (rural)TBD
T-MoT-MobileMerger Commitment for 5GWithin 6 years with some earlier commitments98% of USTBD
COVID-19 StimulusTBD- likely Service ProvidersGrants to build infrastructureTBDTBDTBDProposed Legislation

1. Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF)

The RDOF is a reverse auction for $16 Billion in the first phase of funds explicitly for building out broadband to totally un-served census blocks. The second phase involved $4B for poorly served census blocks. Served refers to whether residences have any access to suitable broadband as defined by the FCC (25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps with capabilities to evolve). For RDOF round one, challenges can be made to remove eligible census blocks but not to add.  Not much of Buncombe County is eligible. 

Implications for WNC:

  1. Each county should determine what WNC areas are eligible work with local service providers to determine if the funding available warrants participating in RDOF Phase 1.
  2. For Phase II, eligibility requirements have not been decided by the FCC, so there is an opportunity to shape the FCC rulemaking. WNC leaders needs to ensure that our un-served areas are eligible through FCC filings and lobbying (e.g. the severely underserved census blocks in WNC that do not meet the RDOF Phase 1 requirement of being totally unserved.)

2. FCC Proposed Fund for 5G in Rural America

The FCC will vote on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at the April meeting that will start the process of funding 5G in rural America that will not be covered by T-Mobile’s deployment commitments and where there is not a business case for deployment. Our beautiful mountainous terrain means WNC likely has among the poorest coverage cellular service in the U.S. and the highest cost to provide good coverage. 

What the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would do: 

  • Propose a 5G Fund for Rural America that would support 5G-capable mobile broadband networks in areas that will not be covered by T-Mobile’s deployment commitments and where there is not a business case for deployment. 
  • Propose to implement the 5G Fund through a two-phase competitive process, using a multi- round, descending clock auction that awards support to the provider willing to serve each area at required performance levels for the lowest amount of support. 
  • Propose a budget of $9 billion, disbursed over ten-year support terms, with up to $8 billion available in Phase I, including $680 million reserved to support 5G networks serving Tribal lands, and at least $1 billion in Phase II to support networks that will facilitate precision agriculture. 
  • Seek comment on whether the Commission should conduct the 5G Fund Phase I auction in 2021 using current data to target particularly rural areas and focus greater support on those areas historically lacking 4G LTE and 3G services, or in the alternative delay the Phase I auction until at least 2023 while the Commission develops more granular mobile broadband data; 
  • Seek comment on the minimum speeds networks supported by the 5G Fund must provide, such as 35/3 Mbps or 50/5 Mbps; 
  • Propose a framework for transitioning from legacy high-cost support to 5G Fund support. 

What the Order would do: 

  • Direct the Wireline Competition Bureau and the Office of Economics and Analytics to seek comment on and develop an adjustment factor to ensure sufficient auction support in areas with rugged terrain, sparse populations, or other factors affecting deployment costs. 

Implications for WNC:

  1. The FCC adjustment factors must reflect the high cost of quality coverage in the rugged WNC terrain. Therefore, WNC leaders must actively provide comments and analysis to the FCC Office of Economics and Analysis.
  2. WNC leaders need to ensure that the eligibility and other rules for the auction reflect our needs and then partner with cellular providers to procure funds in the auction.

3. T-Mobile 5G Commitment for the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger 

T-Mobile committed to provide extensive 5G coverage in the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Agreement. 

The commitment includes:

  • Cover 97% of the U.S. population with mobile 5G on low-band spectrum and 75% of the population with 5G on mid-band spectrum within three years
  • Cover 99% of the U.S. population with low-band mobile 5G within six years and 88% with mid-band 5G within that time frame
  • Cover 85% of rural America with mobile 5G on low-band spectrum in three years and 90% in six years
  • Cover 90% of the U.S. population with mobile 100 Mbps service and 99% with 50 Mbps service within six years
  • Offer fixed 5G service, dubbed New T-Mobile Home Internet, to 9.6 million households within three years of closing, of which at least 2.6 million would be rural households, increasing to 28 million within six years, of which 5.6 million would be rural
  • The fixed 5G service will offer minimum speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, with average speeds above 100 Mbps downstream.

High quality cellular service in any area, but particularly in WNC, will require a one to two order of magnitude increase in the number of cell sites. These cell sites must be interconnected via a deep fiber infrastructure, potentially supplemented by fixed wireless. For T-Mobile to use areas of WNC to meet their commitments, T-Mobile will have to build extensively or find partners to provide critical infrastructure including deep fiber and cell sites. 

Given the FCC sees the T-Mobile merger as a way to reduce the needed federal funding for the advanced cellular build-out in America, we in WCN must ensure the either T-Mobile meets our needs and/or we obtain substantive federal funding from the 5G in Rural America program.

Implications for WNC:

  1. Given the lack of good cellular coverage in much of WNC, T-Mobile’s commitment could provide the opportunity to both obtain much better mobile service and increased the availability of fixed wireless broadband coverage. We must understand T-Mobile’s plan for WNC.
  2. Given our high cost of build for cellular coverage, we should initiate discussions with T-Mobile and local fiber providers such as ERC to see how to make our area attractive as an early build area for T-Mobile. 

4. Broadband funds in Infrastructure bill for COVID-19 Recovery 

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how critical a ubiquitous broadband infrastructure is to the U.S. Representative Clyburn of SC among others has proposed that a House Infrastructure bill should include funding for broadband to 100% of America. Based on FCC work, the estimate for funding is $80 B. 

House Democrats are likely to include this proposal in stimulus funds to help the country recover from the economic effects of the COVID-19 recession. Clyburn in the past has proposed $80 B for broadband infrastructure in other attempts to introduce an infrastructure funding bill that would garner support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration.

Implications for WNC:

  1. Given the high cost of build in WNC, the funds and requirements in such a bill may not be adequate for our area unless WNC leadership actively provides input into the legislative process.
  2. If such a bill does become law, WNC leadership needs to work with service providers to seize the opportunity.