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The FCC Is Making a Boneheaded 5G Play to Improve Rural Broadband

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai listens during a commission meeting on December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai listens during a commission meeting on December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the FCC announced it will set aside up to $9 billion over the next 10 years to fund 5G wireless broadband expansion across rural America. This is in addition to the $20.4 billion already earmarked for wired broadband expansion in rural America over the same time period, but there’s so set date for an auction just yet. Today, the FCC is conducting its auction to distribute funds for phase one of its wired broadband initiative. That should make it easier to expand 5G networks in the future, but the fiber has to actually be deployed for 5G to excel and the data used to dictate who gets what needs to actually be good. Otherwise, it’s a potential big waste of money.

During phase one of the 5G fund distribution, $8 billion will go towards expanding 5G and 4G LTE service in “areas lacking unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G mobile broadband,” with $680 million specifically set aside for providers expanding service on Tribal lands, according to the FCC.


Phase two will put the remaining $1 billion, along with any leftover funds from the first phase, toward the “deployment of technologically innovative 5G networks that facilitate precision agriculture,” or using new technology to increase crop yields while using less land, water, fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides.

For any 5G carrier to qualify for grant funds, their networks must provide at least 35/3 Mbps to underserved and unserved rural areas, as well as roll out service to a specific number of households at certain milestones: three years and six years. Additionally, any carrier already “receiving legacy mobile high cost support” has to spend more of that money on top of any of the new grant to roll out wireless broadband to more areas.


Basically, the FCC expects all recipients of this grant money to actually spend it within the allotted time frame on expanding wireless broadband. Carriers should not be like Frontier, which was unable to fulfill its obligation to provide government-funded service to enough rural areas by the beginning of this year.

But here’s a major problem: the FCC is still giving its broadband service maps a massive overhaul in an effort to accurately reflect what parts of the country actually have service or not. “We’re building this auction without grounding it in any real-world data. That’s because we are still slow-rolling efforts to fix our maps and in fact,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “We need that data to know what communities lack wireless service and how much reaching them will truly cost. But instead, we’re building the ship and setting sail while the compass is still on backorder.”

Rosenworcel also emphasized the need for the FCC to do something about internet adoption rates, noting that “three to four times as many households outside of rural areas have no broadband at home,” and that there are no funding initiatives to bring better internet to urban households.

Many students in the Santa Ana Unified School District in Santa Ana, California, for instance, rely on a “drive-up” wifi system to get internet so they can attend school remotely. Every day, vans operated by JFL Transportation will park around the city to provide as many students as possible with 5G wireless service just so they don’t fall behind academically. With everyone working and going to school from home, that creates a lot of internet traffic in dense cities like Santa Ana and can make it impossible to do some of the most basic things on the internet, like video conference or upload school assignments to Google Classroom.


Since the FCC is holding these rural broadband auctions without an accurate measure of where service is needed, not to mention not addressing the issue of internet adoption in urban areas, its really hard to tell how successful these auctions will be and who will get the money. Should it go to companies like Spectrum or Verizon? HughesNet or SpaceX? Satellite isn’t the most reliable, nor cheapest or fastest, form of internet, and wired broadband ISPs are extremely reluctant to spend any of their own money to build out the cable and fiber infrastructure necessary for optimal 5G speeds. Municipal broadband is roadblocked or flat out banned in about half the states in the U.S., and the FCC just voted to uphold its net neutrality repeal. Maybe if the internet was classified as a utility that would solve some of these problems.