FCC announces $9 billion will be available to help rural America

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced Dec. 4 the establishment of a new 5G fund that will distribute $9 billion to wireless carriers over a 10-year period to speed the development of a fifth generation wireless network that would, he said, benefit rural America.

The fund will set aside $1 billion specifically for the development of precision agriculture applications. In a press call, senior FCC officials called the announcement a “big win for the nation’s farmers and ranchers.”

“5G has the potential to bring many benefits to American consumers and businesses, including wireless networks that are more responsive, more secure, and up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G LTE networks,” Pai said in a press release.

“We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will. In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow,” said Pai. “Moreover, America’s farms and ranches have unique wireless connectivity needs, as I’ve seen across the country. That’s why I will move forward as quickly as possible to establish a 5G Fund that would bring next generation 5G services to rural areas and would reserve some of that funding for 5G networks that promote precision agriculture. We must ensure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide and that rural Americans receive the benefits that come from wireless innovation.”

The commission created a precision ag task force that will be holding its first meeting in the second week of December to explore where best to apply those precision ag funds.

Replaces mobility fund

The 5G fund will replace the planned Mobility Fund Phase II, which would have provided federal support for 4G LTE service in unserved areas. Under Mobility Fund Phase II rules, wireless providers were required to submit 4G LTE coverage data in order to help the commission target federal subsidies to unserved parts of the country. The Mobility Fund was funded at $4.5 billion over ten years, half the amount of the new 5G fund.

The Mobility Fund Phase II challenge process gave stakeholders an opportunity to dispute these coverage maps by submitting speed tests to the commission.

MF-II maps ‘not reliable’

But in a report also released Dec. 4, the commission staff found that the 4G LTE coverage data submitted by providers was “not sufficiently reliable for the purpose of moving forward with Mobility Fund Phase II.”

Specifically, FCC staff conducted thousands of speed tests to measure network performance and concluded that the MF-II coverage maps submitted by the participating carriers likely overstated each provider’s actual coverage and did not reflect on-the-ground experience in many instances. The carriers involved were Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular.

The staff report recommended that the commission terminate the challenge process, audit the coverage filings of carriers in other proceedings before the commission, and take additional steps to make sure that coverage data the commission and the public rely on is accurate. However, the staff found no evidence of clear violations of any FCC rules, and the FCC does not intend to take any enforcement action regarding the MF-II coverage maps.

The report, which includes additional staff recommendations regarding future collections of mobile coverage maps, is available at https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-361165A1.pdf.

Data files containing the approximately 25,000 speed tests taken by FCC staff and approximately 20 million speed tests taken by challengers are available for download at https://www.fcc.gov/mobility-fund-phase-2#data. 

Importance of drive testing

Pai praised the work of the agency’s staff. “I thank the FCC’s dedicated staff for their diligence in conducting the investigation that led to this report. This investigation highlights the importance of drive testing to verify mobile coverage claims. Staff drove nearly 10,000 miles in the course of conducting speed tests of carrier networks, an unprecedented effort that provided vital information about the extent of actual coverage on the ground. Mobile carriers must submit accurate broadband coverage data to the commission. Simply put, we need to make sure that federal funding goes to areas that need it the most,” he said.

The commission recently created the Digital Opportunity Data Collection task force and has also sought comment on how to improve the reliability and accuracy of the data submitted by mobile broadband providers.

Working group leaders named

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On Dec. 6, Pai announced the leadership of the four working groups that will make up the task force. 

“I’m grateful to these eight individuals for stepping up to lead the Task Force’s important working groups,” Pai said. “The timing couldn’t be better. … The Task Force will play a critical role in assessing connectivity needs and demand, accelerating deployment on unserved agricultural lands, and promoting adoption of these broadband-based technologies. We’re at a revolutionary moment for American farmers and ranchers who feed the world, and the important work of the Task Force will help shape that connected future.”

The Task Force is a federal advisory committee created to explore ways to enhance the productivity and efficiency of the nation’s farms and ranches through broadband-based technologies. Below are the chairs and vice-chair of the four working groups: 

The working group for mapping and analyzing connectivity on agricultural lands will help identify connectivity gaps on agricultural lands.

Chair­—Michael Adelaine, Ph.D., vice president for technology and security, South Dakota State University;

Vice chair­—Sreekala Bajwa, Ph.D., vice president, dean and director; College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, Montana State University.

The working group for examining current and future connectivity demand for precision agriculture will help identify the current and future connectivity needs for precision agriculture applications and identify how those needs may vary for different agricultural producers.

Chair—Daniel T. Leibfried, director advanced technology, Intelligent Solutions Group, John Deere; 

Vice chair­—Blake Hurst, president, Missouri Farm Bureau.

The working group in charge of encouraging adoption of precision agriculture and availability of high-quality jobs on connected farms will explore how to promote adoption of precision agriculture technologies and how such technologies will affect demand for skilled labor in the farming and ranching sectors.

Chair—Mike McCormick, president, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation; 

Vice chair—Julie Bushell, president, Paige Wireless Irrigation Association.

The accelerating broadband deployment on unserved agricultural lands working group will help identify barriers to infrastructure deployment on agricultural lands and how to promote continued investment in networks serving those areas.

Chair—Jeff Pettit, president and CEO, Noash Construction, Inc., National Association of Tower Erectors; 

Vice Chair—Heather Hampton Knodle, vice president, Knodle Ltd. Farms, American Agri-Women.

Previously, Pai had announced that the task force chair will be Teddy Bekele, senior vice president and chief technology officer, Land O’Lakes. The vice chair will be Catherine Moyer, chief executive officer and general manager, Pioneer Communications.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].