As has been the case pretty much every month on Chairman Pai’s watch, the FCC has a packed agenda for August. A number of important issues are teed up, but NTCA has focused on a couple that are very important to overcome the digital divide – and to sustain broadband where it’s in place today. As the time to talk with the FCC before its votes draws to a close, we’ve been reaching out to the commissioners’ offices to make sure they understand the importance of near-term and longer-term steps to improve service maps, and the need to proceed as quickly as possible to set up a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that will help get much better broadband into these rural areas where our members don’t operate today and areas where rural Americans have truly been underserved to date.
We’ve been out in front for some time on broadband mapping, looking to promote better maps and processes in the near-term while aiming for even better maps in the long-run. NTCA believes that getting more granular and defining standards for more accurate reporting can yield better maps quickly, with those improved maps then being run through a final “sanity check” before they are used either to distribute or deny universal service dollars in a rural area. And then, as these kinds of near-term improvements are leveraged, we can keep working in parallel to develop even better maps that measure where broadband is and isn’t at a location or address level. While we don’t want to wait around to make progress on broadband deployment immediately, we all should certainly aim for greater granularity as an “end game” goal and work toward it as fast as we all can. We’ve reiterated this in our recent FCC meetings, and we have also provided more specific feedback on ways to improve the data collection beyond what the FCC proposes. The critical importance of doing mapping right has been top of mind for NTCA as well as top of mind for Members of Congress who have sent letters to the FCC urging them to move quickly.
Meanwhile, we are very excited to see the new RDOF program get underway. I often hear from NTCA members about calls from consumers served by other – larger – providers who see the great things that our members are doing in neighboring areas. The RDOF could be a significant boost in responding to the demand from these areas that our members don’t serve today. In recent meetings with our members, there was a lot of buzz about the RDOF and the opportunities it presents for our providers to build upon and extend the great work they already do. It will also be an interesting opportunity for NTCA members to be thinking about who they might partner with or create a consortium with to ensure more opportunity for success in their bids and a broader opportunity to bring service to those underserved. So we’d certainly like to see that program get off the ground as soon it can, and we’ve been talking with the FCC about the best ways to do so. For example, when giving out universal service funds through 2030 or longer, we should be encouraging higher speeds and service quality that consumers will still find relevant and useful 10 to 20 years from now – it’s a waste of USF dollars to pay for a network that just needs to be rebuilt in a handful of years to keep pace with consumer demand.
Trust me – as with everything here in Washington DC and everything that requires a “building blocks” approach, there will be many more opportunities to weigh in on these topics as they are considered and implemented, but this August meeting’s agenda represents some big steps forward – and we’re delighted to be at the table for and with our members talking about the best ways to deliver on the promise of rural broadband.