WISPA Favors Much of RDOF Proposal, But Small Changes Could Make It Even Better for WISPs, Rural Americans
Washington, DC, September 20, 2019 – Since the dawn of the Communications Act of 1934, it has been U.S. policy to get all Americans onto our communications networks to access our economy, participate in self-governance, stay safe and communicate with friends and families, among other uses. Rural and isolated regions, however, have long-been a challenge to this policy: The economics of extending communications facilities to these areas mean that they often are unserved or underserved.
The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (“RDOF”) – a proposed $20.4 billion program to provide financial support for rural areas lacking access to adequate fixed broadband service – represents an important addition to the Commission’s longstanding efforts to reduce the rural digital divide. As comments filed today by WISPA reveal, WISPA favors much of the RDOF framework, including its proposal to allocate support based on the successful Connect America Fund (“CAF”) Phase II reverse auction process, as well as the adoption of certain performance requirements and enforcement mechanisms.
“Robust and affordable broadband for all Americans is a national priority, and the significant steps taken here by the Commission appear up to the task of getting more rural Americans online,” said Claude Aiken, president and CEO of WISPA. “$20 billion is a tremendous Federal commitment to the heartland, and we’re excited that the RDOF will enable many of our members to play a significant role in making their rural communities better connected.”
RDOF’s centerpiece is its CAF II-like reverse auction process, a model which is seen by many as an effective way to inject competition, oversight and cost-effectiveness to the Universal Service Fund program. Still, important aspects of RDOF need changing or further refining. Chief among these changes are:
WISPA strongly opposes the addition of subscription levels as a new performance metric. Should the Commission adopt it, “this proposal would effectively make RDOF recipients responsible for broadband adoption, a seismic shift in the deployment objectives of the Commission’s high-cost programs,” notes the comments. WISPA believes such a metric cannot be supported by statute and, through a number of other practical and policy shortcomings, undermines Congressional and Commission Universal Service objectives. As such, the FCC should reject this new metric.
WISPA also respectfully disagrees with the Commission’s concern that “spectrum-based bidders may have capacity constraints on their systems deterring them from continuing to pursue new subscribers should an increase in capacity (but not coverage, which is mandated by the deployment milestones) require additional capital expenditures.” There is no data in the record, or in any other source of which WISPA is aware, that supports that assertion.
WISPA also sees obstacles in the timing of the auction process and the data needed to ensure that a sound process can go through smoothly and fairly. “It is of utmost importance for the Commission to rely on the most accurate, granular and current information it has before it establishes the areas eligible for RDOF support,” says WISPA. Absent this data, however, “it will be extremely difficult for the Commission to conduct a $16.4 billion Phase I auction in 2020.” Having accurate data would minimize subsidized overbuilding and obviate many of the problems in the post-auction challenge process. But this data – like the broadband serviceable location fabric – will not be available before Phase I of the auction proceeds. To rectify this tension, WISPA urges the Commission to prioritize funding to areas that most need it – such as those without access to 10/1 broadband – and then conduct additional auctions as more accurate data becomes available.
Finally, the Commission should narrow the spread between the “Above Baseline” and “Gigabit” performance tiers to better represent actual consumer choice. On top of this, the FCC should also allow performance bonds as an alternative to, but not a substitute for, hard to obtain and costly to maintain letters of credit. “Taken together, these proposals will encourage greater participation in the RDOF auction, encourage expedited broadband service to rural areas, and make more support and investment capital available to auction winners, without undermining the integrity of the program,” states the filing.
“On the whole, the FCC’s got a good proposal here, which will bring a lot of solutions to the table to bridge the rural digital divide,” said Aiken. “We think that with our changes, the RDOF could become even more effective by helping small providers already in the marketplace – such as our members who provide fixed wireless broadband to their rural communities – meaningfully compete for support and avoid unwarranted overbuilding in their service areas.”
WISPA’s approximately 800 members are composed of fixed Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) and the industry that supports fixed wireless broadband, including equipment suppliers, support services, and other components needed to run a successful business. Our members, and WISPs, in general, provide broadband access to over 4 million residential and business customers, often in exclusively rural areas.