$16 billion in broadband subsidies up for auction in November

31 January 2020 by Steve Blum
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The Federal Communications Commission will begin the process of handing out $16 billion in broadband service subsidies in November, with another $4.4 billion coming sometime later. Commissioners approved the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program at their meeting in Washington, D.C. yesterday. They set the minimum standard for acceptable broadband service at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds: any census block that completely lacks access to service at that speed level will eligible for subsidies in November. Subsidies for partially eligible census blocks will follow in phase 2 of the program, on a schedule yet to be determined.

The final text of that decision hasn’t been released, nor have the written comments of commissioners. The three republican commissioners gave unqualified support to the plan, but the two democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, objected to some of the details. According to a post by Joan Engebretson on the Telecompetitor blog, they wanted a higher standard…

Rosenworcel and Starks argued that the commission should have been more ambitious in establishing the speed tiers. Noting that 200 kbps was considered broadband 10 years ago, Rosenworcel argued that the 25/3 Mbps minimum will look equally outdated 10 years from now and said the minimum target should have been 100 Mbps.

There were some other changes made to the draft decision that was released three weeks ago, but we’ll have to wait for the final version to be published before we know what those are. Judging from published reports, there’s no indication that the commission bowed to pressure from AT&T, Frontier and other telcos to dumb down faster speed tiers, that would be eligible for extra points in the reverse auction that’ll be used to distribute the money in November. On the other hand, there’s no firm information that they didn’t.

Likewise, no mention was made of a request from the California Public Utilities Commission to delay the November auction – which certainly wasn’t granted – and to work more closely with states, such as California, that have broadband subsidy programs of their own.