RALEIGH – Some 169,000 households and small businesses across North Carolina that lack access to high-speed internet could be provided with faster speeds if a new federal program is approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC plan – if passed by FCC commissioners on Jan. 30 – would provide more than $20 billion through a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This is the latest attempt by the FCC to deal with the so-called “digital divide.”

Money for broadband expansion would be available to service providers who will compete for areas of coverage and funding through a bidding process.

NC Broadband.gov graphic

Areas targeted for the program are ones in which broadband is not available at the standards set by the FCC: 25 megabits per second downloand, 3 mbps upload. Various tiers of service would be offered with funding to winning service providers spread out over 10 years.

Originally announced last year, the FCC plan would:

  • “Adopt technology-neutral standards, opening the auction to all types of providers that can meet program standards”
  • “Ensure a smooth transition of support from existing providers to auction winners”

Fifteen states have more than the 169,000 homes and businesses listed by the FCC.

Telecom and internet providers such as AT&T, Frontier and WindStream lobbied for changes such as data caps and speed in the plan that was originally announced, according to news site ArsTechnia.

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Here’s how the auction would work, according to an FCC spokesperson:

  • Auction weights would prioritize support for services providing faster speeds and low latency.
  • Once the reverse auction hits the clearing price, where there is more than one bid to serve the same area, the bidder in the faster-speed tier would be declared the winner.
  • The minimum speed would increase from the 10/1 Mbps that was used in Connect America Fund Phase II to 25/3 Mbps.

The auction could take place later this year.

However, a debate continues about mapping what areas do and don’t have broadband access.

For example, the state of North Carolina has published its own map.

In an email to WRAL TechWire, the FCC noted that this plan would enable progress to begin on upgrading internet access while maps are developed further.

“Waiting for the availability of more granular data before moving forward with any part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would only further disadvantage the millions of Americans that we know do not have access to digital opportunity,” the FCC noted.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC, wants faster minimum speeds and new maps, according to ArsTechnia.

“[S]he pointed out that the FCC’s broadband maps are inaccurate and said they should be overhauled before the FCC doles out $20.4 billion,” ArsTechnia reported.

“The FCC voted to collect more accurate data in August, but it could select the first auction winners before the government has a better idea of which parts of the country lack broadband.”

Two phases

The FCC proposal sees two phases for grants:

“In Phase I, the FCC would target census blocks that are wholly unserved with fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps (census blocks where existing data tells us there is no such service at all).  $16 billion would be made available under Phase I.  And according to the Commission staff’s initial estimates, almost 6 million homes and businesses would be eligible for Phase I.

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“In Phase II, the FCC would use its new granular broadband mapping approach, called the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, to target unserved households in partially served census blocks (census blocks where some locations have access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps but others do not).  Phase II would also include any areas not awarded during the Phase I reverse auction.”

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“The digital divide affects many people in many rural communities.  I’ve said that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would be our boldest step yet to bridge this divide, and today we get a glimpse of the broad impact this investment in rural America would have across the country,” said Chairman FCC Chair Ajit Pai in the announcement Tuesday.

“Our staff’s initial estimate shows that in 25 states there would be more than 100,000 locations that would be eligible for Phase I of the Fund, and the benefits would be felt from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is critical to bridging the digital divide.  I hope that my colleagues will join me in voting for it on January 30.”

To learn more about the FCC plan, visit:

Press release: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-361763A1.pdf

Draft of the Order: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-361785A1.pdf