FCC’s go it alone broadband subsidies burn state programs, commissioners say

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Thirteen days before the November election, the Federal Communications Commission plans to give away $16 billion of subsidies to broadband service providers who can deliver at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds to census blocks that lack it. Commissioners voted last week to publish the proposed 22 October 2020 date to commence a reverse auction to determine who gets those subsidies, and ask for comments on a variety of technical issues that have to be sewn up before the bidding begins.

The vote was partially unanimous, but mostly split along party lines, with the two democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, objecting to various aspects of the plan, including particularly the timeline.

Rosenworcel said “this Rural Digital Opportunity Fund [RDOF] looks more like publicity stunt than policy”, but…

To do this right, we also need to acknowledge that we are not going to do it on our own. We need to work with state and local authorities and not fight their efforts to help bring broadband to their communities. But that’s not what we do here. In fact, last month in a batch of last-minute changes, the FCC decided that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would not be available in places where states have their own programs. By some counts, that’s as many as 30 states. That’s crazy and we have no idea how it will play out on the ground. We should be encouraging states to work with us not penalizing them for their efforts to bring broadband to communities that are struggling. We have this exactly backwards.

Starks also called for the FCC to re-do its January decision setting out eligibility and other rules for the RDOF program, this time with input from states, like California, that have their own broadband subsidy programs.

The president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, asked for that opportunity in a letter she sent to the FCC in January, but it was ignored. The final version of the FCC’s RDOF rules don’t lock out Californian communities with the pitifully slow broadband service levels that legislators adopted in 2017 following massive cash payments hard lobbying by AT&T, Frontier Communications and the cable industry, but considerable work is needed to figure out how to maximise the benefit of both federal and California subsidies.