One of the biggest barriers to closing the digital divide has long been cost – it simply costs so much to put in the infrastructure that the return on investment takes too long or is simply non-existent, network operators have said. Now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic when broadband has played a crucial role in enabling online work, school and personal connection, there are billions of dollars being dedicated to various aspects of broadband deployment, through various legislative efforts. At the federal level, these include:

-The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction for Universal Service Fund support in the coming decade wrapped up last December; the FCC is still reviewing the long-form applications of the presumptive winners. RDOF awards $9.23 billion in support of high-speed rural broadband deployment, with service tiers ranging from a minimum of 25/3 Mbps and up to gigabit speeds. The FCC said that the funds will be used in 49 states and one territory to connect nearly 5.3 million locations in 61,766 eligible census block groups. The commission says that winning bids to deploy downlink speeds of at least 100 Mbps cover 99.7% of the locations, with more than 85% covered by bids promising to deliver gigabit-speed service. Those deployments will come as a combination of wireline, fixed wireless and space-based internet service, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won nearly $886 million in support of its low-earth-orbit satellite service, Starlink – although Starlink’s RDOF dollars have drawn critical eyes from observers who wonder if the company, which is still in its beta phase of service provision, can actually live up to its performance commitments and service customers across the 35 states where it won RDOF dollars.

There were 180 winning bidders in the RDOF auction, out of a field of nearly 400 qualified bidders; the other top winning bidders included LTD Broadband, Charter Communications and the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium. LTD Broadband is a fixed wireless internet service provider that says it has 1,800 tower sites in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin covering over 50,000 square miles which is the fourth-largest WISP in the U.S. LTD won $1.3 billion in support over 10 years to build out fiber and wireless broadband in 15 states. Charter won $1.2 billion in support to build out fiber and cable networks in 24 states, and the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium won $1.1 billion over ten years to build out fiber connectivity in 22 states. RDOF will have a second phase of funding in the future, awarding additional money for a total of up to $20.4 billion in the two phases, that will integrate new mapping data being organized by the FCC so that partially-served census blocks are receive subsidies for build-out.

-The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was the initial Covid-19 relief bill passed in 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, focused largely on supporting businesses and individuals through the pandemic. It also provided $100 million for USDA’s rural broadband ReConnect program, and $200 million to the FCC for telehealth-related grants. In addition, the bill provided $150 billion to state and local governments, some of whom opted to pump a portion of that money into broadband or connectivity-related efforts during the pandemic. Ohio, for example, set aside $50 million that it received through the CARES Act to fund purchases of hot spots and internet-enabled devices for students. CARES Act funds were initially meant to be spent by the end of 2020, but Congress has extended the deadline for using the funds through Dec. 31, 2021.

-The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, is a $3.2 trillion relief package that included about $7 billion for various broadband-related programs. That figure includes the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which provides subsidies of up to $50 per month for broadband service (up to $75 per month on Tribal lands). The FCC had more than 1 million households sign up for the program within its first week. The bill also included $1.9 billion for a rip-and-replace program for Chinese equipment that the U.S. government deems a network security risk; $1.3 billion for NTIA, including $1 billion for tribal governments to use on broadband deployment, telehealth, distance learning and other digital initiatives and $300 million to support broadband infrastructure deployments in unserved locations, especially rural areas. It also includes $285 million to support a pilot program for broadband around historically Black colleges and universities, and the surrounding communities, $250 million for the FCC’s Covid-19 telehealth program and $65 million to implement the Broadband DATA Act to improve the accuracy of broadband deployment data. America Rescue Plan funding is available to be used through the end of 2024.  

That $350 billion from the American Rescue Plan and $150 billion in CARES Act that goes directly to the states is being disbursed by the U.S. Treasury Department; the American Rescue Plan specifically allows for states to use the money “to make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.” The Treasury Department is also administering a separate, $10 billion Capital Projects Fund for states, territories and tribal governments for capital projects and “the ancillary costs needed to put the capital assets in use,” for projects that are “critical in nature, providing connectivity for those who lack it,” the Treasury says, adding that the Capital Projects Fund “allows for investment in high-quality broadband as well as other connectivity infrastructure, devices, and equipment.” The agency will begin accepting applications for review this summer.

In addition to the funding that has already been passed, there are multiple proposals for even more broadband investment. These include:

-The American Jobs Plan, Biden’s infrastructure and job stimulus package that is still in negotiations, includes $100 billion for additional broadband investment. That “historic investment” plan for broadband lays out the lofty goal of providing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American” and hits on cybersecurity as well; award recipients under the act will be asked to source from “trusted vendors” and “give preference to open, interoperable architecture where feasible,” which could be a boon to domestic Open RAN efforts. It also includes a billion dollars for modernizing the federal government’s networks and technology use. “As important as the plan itself is the message it sends – that broadband, like electricity, is a necessity, and that one cannot participate in our economy, our education and health care systems and our society without it,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law and policy, and counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a blog post in response to the American Jobs Plan. “The United States cannot afford to be a country of digital haves and have-nots.”

-The LIFT America Act, introduced by 32 House Democrats, asks for $80 billion to deploy “secure and resilient high-speed broadband” access across the country to unserved and underserved rural, suburban and urban areas, which they say will “allow for 100% broadband deployment throughout the nation.” That proposal also includes $15 billion for implementing NG911 services, $5 billion for low-interest broadband financing, and $9.3 billion to lower the price barriers to broadband affordability and adoption.

-The U.S. Senate recently passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which is a sweeping measure aimed at countering China’s technological strength, outlining $250 billion in spending designed to boost U.S. technology research and development and semiconductor production. The bill also includes $1.5 billion to fill a fund in support of domestic Open RAN adoption, as well as $35 million to NTIA to “expand internet access to rural areas and tribal lands through the establishment of internet exchanges facilities and submarine cable landing station grants.” That bill must pass the House before it can be signed by Biden, who has expressed his support for it.

-Also on the horizon for wireless network operators is the Rural 5G Fund, which the FCC authorized in late 2020, which would provide about $9 billion in USF funding over ten years to bring 5G to rural areas. This is the first USF program that is expected to be able to incorporate data from the FCC’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection proceeding to improve the accuracy of network mapping data. The first phase of the auction will involve up to $8 billion for “areas lacking unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G mobile broadband,” with $680 million specifically set aside for bidders offering to serve tribal lands. The second phase will provide at least another $1 billion, plus any unawarded funds from the first phase, to “specifically target the deployment of technologically innovative 5G networks that facilitate precision agriculture.” The FCC said it plans to include an adjustment factor in the Rural 5G Fund reserve auctions to ensure that the hardest-to-serve areas can compete in the auction. Winning bidders will be required to provide 5G mobile broadband at speeds of at least 35/3 Mbps.

Amid a wash of funding for broadband deployment and bridging the digital divide, what does a future-ready rural broadband network look like, and what are the challenges and opportunities at hand?  Join RCR Wireless News for a webinar on Thursday, June 10 featuring regional network operator Nsight, the Competitive Carriers Association and A10 Networks, and keep an eye out for our upcoming special report.

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