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FCC Establishes 5G Fund for Rural America With Opportunity for Satellite

By Rachel Jewett | October 28, 2020

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Photo: FCC

The FCC voted on Tuesday to establish a $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America to bring 5G wireless broadband connectivity to rural areas of the United States. Phase I of the 5G Fund will target up to $8 billion of support nationwide to areas without unsubsidized 4G LTE or 5G mobile broadband, with $680 million specifically for bidders offering to serve Tribal lands. Phase II will provide at least an additional $1 billion, and specifically target 5G networks for precision agriculture. 

All five FCC Commissioners voted in support of the order establishing the fund. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in part, stating that more effort should be made to collect data in order to create more accurate coverage maps.

This fund is the next step from the FCC to bridge the digital divide, like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) which begins Oct. 29. Like RDOF, the 5G Fund will use multi-round reverse auctions in which companies bid to receive subsidies to serve eligible areas. The FCC also said the auction will take into account T-Mobile’s commitment to cover 90% of rural Americans with a 5G network within six years to avoid overbuilding. 

According to the order, released in October, satellite technology is not excluded from the fund, and recipients can use technologies like satellite backhaul to meet 5G obligations “so long as they offer to the end user terrestrial 5G service that complies with the 5G-NR [New Radio] standard and meets all performance requirements.” 

Satellite providers are not excluded from competing in the auction, but in order to be eligible, service providers must provide mobile, terrestrial voice, and broadband services, and meet data speed and latency requirements of at least 35/3 Mbps and 100 milliseconds or less, respectively. Additionally, voice and 5G broadband service must conform to the 5G-NR standard using permitted spectrum bands directly to a standard phone, like an iPhone. 

“While a carrier could potentially use non-terrestrial services, such as satellite service, to augment its provision of mobile, terrestrial voice and data services in the areas for which it is awarded 5G Fund support, it cannot rely solely on any such non-terrestrial services to meet its 5G Fund public interest obligations and performance requirements,” the order reads.