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The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: What’s up with the wait for Phase II?

Lansing, Michigan (September 24, 2021) – The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) provides a unique opportunity to expand access to fixed broadband and voice service to millions of unserved homes and small businesses in rural America. There’s one problem—a hold up when it comes to Phase II of the $20.4 billion program.

Outside Philo 3
A cornfield and broadband technology outside Sidney, Illinois.

“This comes up a lot when we’re talking to rural communities and smaller providers across the country,” said Tom Stephenson, Broadband Solutions Manager, Connected Nation Michigan (CN Michigan). “They want to know when the Federal Communications Commission will open Phase II of the reverse auction. The issue is the FCC is, rightly so, waiting on some improved data regarding current broadband coverage.”

Here’s how the fund works. It uses a two-phase, competitive reverse auction (Phase I was called “Auction 904”) that prioritizes higher network speeds and lower latency. The idea is to ensure the deployment of robust, sustainable high-speed networks in rural areas.

The majority of locations are expected to receive access to broadbands speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream (100/20 Mbps), and the projects must serve census blocks that lacked broadband service with minimum speeds of 25/3 Mbps. The problem is the current broadband maps don’t always accurately reflect unserved and served location.

“To bring broadband to every unserved part of the United States we must know where broadband service is available, and where it is not,” Stephenson explained. “The FCC is in the process of creating more granular, precise maps on the availability of fixed and mobile broadband service with the Broadband Data Collection.”

Phase I ended on November 25, 2020, and $9.2 billion in support was awarded to 180 bidders—signifying work to begin on the deployment of broadband infrastructure to more than 5.2 million homes and small businesses.  However, RDOF Phase II, which covers the remaining $11.2 billion in the fund, will not happen until the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) and new broadband map is fully stood up and can be used to guide Phase II eligibility. 

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has made that clear. In this interview with Marketplace Tech, she explained, “If we want to solve a problem, we’re going to need to have the data that helps us solve that problem. And for too long, the FCC has had broadband maps that don’t say with total accuracy where service is, and is not, in this country. And we’re not really going to fix the problem without tackling that. And honestly, the best time to have done that would have been several years ago. But I think the second-best time is right now. So, I set up a task force that is looking at all the changes we can make in the short term to improve our maps but, also, [looks at] how we’re going to have really accurate maps in the long term. And what’s most important here is we can’t just take in data from the carriers and assume it’s correct. We have to go to individuals, local officials and state officials and ask them what’s really happening in their own backyard.”

Connected Nation’s staff agrees that it’s important to utilize more accurate and more granular broadband data whenever possible before making new investments.

It may be at least 12-18 months before any new FCC broadband map can be created based on the BDC’s progress to-date. Therefore, as of this writing, it could be 24 months or more before any RDOF Phase II is implemented.

Meanwhile, Congress has made more than $366 billion available to states and communities for COVID-19 recovery—and broadband infrastructure is generally an eligible expense. You can find details on these and other broadband-related funding programs, including how to apply, by heading to the Connected Nation broadband funding webpage.

About Us: Connected Nation Michigan is the statewide program of the national nonprofit, Connected Nation. The organization, which is celebrating 20 years of service in 2021, has a mission to identify innovative solutions for expanding access, adoption, and use of broadband (high-speed internet) and its related technologies to all people. Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.