#RuralIsCool, Volume 1, Issue 56 | January 30, 2020

FCC Adopts Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Order

The FCC today adopted the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) order, which will direct $20.4 billion over 10 years to support the deployment of broadband at speeds up to a gigabit per second to rural areas of price cap carrier territories where service is not currently available at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. Funding will be awarded through a two-phase reverse auction, with a budget of $16 billion for the first phase and $4.4 billion for the second phase. The order has not yet been released, so the details provided here are based upon the draft order previously circulated by the FCC and statements by the commissioners at today’s open meeting; these details are all subject to final verification when the text becomes publicly available.

The RDOF order adoption culminates months of advocacy on the part of NTCA and other stakeholders to promote future-proof networks and broadband speeds capable of meeting consumer demands over the program’s 10-year term.

The first phase of the auction will target census blocks where broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps is not available at all, while the second phase will target census blocks where 25/3 Mbps is only partially available and will be based on revised data collected through the FCC’s Form 477.

A weighting system will prioritize bids to deliver higher-speed and lower-latency service. Although the FCC appears to have retained the 50/5 Mbps service tier to which NTCA objected, the commission also appears to have retained without change plans for a “clearing round” bid procedure for which NTCA had advocated, which should help promote awards to the best-performing networks in the auction and mitigate the impact of having two service tiers at speeds below what is available to the average urban consumer.

Comments from commission officials today indicate that the commission also made changes to the letter of credit requirements – consistent with requests made by NTCA and other provider organizations. According to the officials, the requirements as adopted strive to strike a balance between ensuring that funds are used properly and encouraging participation in the auction.

NTCA did considerable advocacy leading up to the FCC vote today to give members meaningful opportunities to participate in the auction and to ensure that the auction would not foreclose support of existing networks dependent upon ongoing universal service support. NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield issued a media statement about the vote today.

In addition to meetings and phone calls previously reported in #RuralIsCool, Bloomfield had separate telephone conversations on January 22 with FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr and with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s chief of staff, while NTCA Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs and Business Development Mike Romano met with a representative for FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and spoke via telephone with a rural broadband advisor to Pai.

In addition to advocating on the issues noted above, Bloomfield and Romano discussed the need for ongoing universal service support in certain areas that have access to broadband at speeds in excess of 25/3 Mbps. They requested that the commission to seek comment on how to identify areas with 25/3 Mbps service that might need ongoing support and how to address such issues going forward. The order does not appear to contain any such provisions, however, and NTCA is evaluating how best to ensure that these concerns will be examined more closely by the commission.

FCC Chairman and Michigan Congressman Visit D&P Communications

Adam Jorde, NTCA director of government affairs, joined member company D&P Communications (Petersburg, Mich.) and the Telecommunications Association of Michigan last Thursday as they welcomed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) to the company’s headquarters.

D&P President Robert “Bob” Parisien welcomed Pai and Walberg and showcased the company’s headquarters. Parisien also detailed the “vertical and horizontal” growth of D&P that spans more than a century.

As the ‘Your Local Service Provider’ slogan on its sign infers, D&P has always focused on being local first—with a strong commitment to customer service. D&P has connected every school in Lenawee County with fiber and is a strong supporter of the local community.

While discussing D&P’s customers across Lenawee County, Parisien told Pai and Walberg, “Our focus has always been, ‘how can we provide a better service? How can we provide more to them?’”

That message resonated with the policymakers, who were touring rural Michigan and Ohio to gather feedback on the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction.

NTCA Asks FCC to Protect Rural Consumers in Call-Blocking Rulemaking

NTCA responded to a FCC public notice seeking comment on the availability and effectiveness of call-blocking tools to block suspected unwanted or illegal robocalls and inform a pending report that will be issued by the commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs, Wireline Competition, and Public Safety and Homeland Security bureaus.

NTCA stated that the inquiry must do more than just merely focus on whether call-blocking tools are available or effective. All the implications associated with the use of these tools, positive and negative, should be captured and analyzed in any reasonable and comprehensive assessment of their capabilities, NTCA said. The report also should consider whether a “reverse call completion” problem will emerge in rural areas if steps are not taken to enable rural carrier participation in SHAKEN/STIR and unauthenticated calls are caught up in call-blocking tools. 

NTCA also discussed the barriers NTCA members face in adopting SHAKEN/STIR and the ways they can be removed. NTCA suggested that the commission can protect rural consumers from having legitimate calls blocked in error by enabling their participation in the SHAKEN/STIR ecosystem. Additionally, NTCA suggested the FCC implement “guardrails” that allow a party inadvertently caught up in a call-blocking service and placed on a “blacklist” to have a means of correcting such a mistake as expeditiously as possible.

Lifeline Should Recognize Differences Between Fixed and Mobile Broadband, NTCA Says

The Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline program should set a goal of ensuring that every low-income customer’s individual connectivity needs are met, said NTCA in comments filed with the FCC about modernization of the program. Specifically, the commission should recognize the key differences between fixed and mobile broadband services, NTCA said.

The comments include several examples of connectivity needs that may not be met by mobile service in rural areas, where service coverage remains spotty. A mobile connection may not be robust enough to support telemedicine or to enable a student to complete homework assignments, NTCA said.

NTCA also noted that the Lifeline program is tasked with placing an available broadband connection within the reach of a consumer who might not otherwise be able to afford it and that in high-cost rural areas, this goal is achieved only after the USF High-Cost program has made the connection available and has normalized the rate so that it is comparable with rates in urban areas. All USF programs should start with the baseline assumption that “good enough” is not acceptable, NTCA said.

House Democrats Propose $750 Billion over Five Years for Infrastructure

Democratic members of the House of Representatives this week proposed a Moving Forward Framework outlining a five-year, $750 billion investment in U.S. infrastructure, including $86 billion for broadband and communications. NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield issued a statement supporting the initiative, noting “NTCA appreciates the attention paid in this infrastructure package to the need to address the digital divide. The promotion of robust and affordable broadband access in unserved and underserved communities, like many across rural America, is a shared national concern. NTCA members are eager to continue leading the charge in both deployment of networks and ongoing delivery of cutting-edge services in rural areas, and we look forward to working with Congress on this critical issue as this debate moves forward.”

Latest NTCA ReConnect Awards Total $26 Million

Four more NTCA members won a total of $26 million in grant funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, including:

USDA announced that it will begin taking applications for the second round of $550 million in ReConnect Program loan and grant funding on January 31. Members are encouraged to read the slides and review the webcast NTCA hosted with Rural Utilities Service Acting Assistant Administrator for Telecommunications Programs Laurel Leverrier or join one of several other upcoming workshops and webcasts.

Notes in the News

NTCA member EPICTOUCH announced that Chief Financial Officer Becky Scott has been named interim president following the recent death of Chief Executive Officer Trenton D. Boaldin.

A Senate bill has been introduced that would allow the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to issue subpoenas compelling Internet service providers to offer contact information for their enterprise customers when vulnerabilities are detected on critical infrastructure systems. A summary of the bill has been released. A similar House bill has also been drafted and is being marked up by the House Homeland Security Committee.

The FCC eliminated an E-Rate amortization requirement.

Service milestone deadlines for all CAF Phase II auction support recipients will fall at the end of the calendar year, and annual location filing and certification deadlines will fall on March 1.

The FCC Wireline Competition Bureau and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau are seeking comment on technical requirements for the reassigned numbers database.

The FCC updated the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) Best Practices database. More information about CSRIC can be found at this link.