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FCC advances rural broadband expansion fund proposal

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to put more money and better data behind its efforts to expand rural broadband.

At its Aug. 1 open meeting, the commission advanced a proposal that would establish a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which would set aside $20.4 billion over ten years to bring high-speed broadband service to unserved communities. The proposal would require a minimum broadband speed of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. Additionally, it would disburse funds in two phases through a multiround reverse auction, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

The chairman first announced his plans for the fund in April, at which time he said money for the new fund would be repurposed from the Universal Service Fund, which provides subsidies to connect unserved and rural areas with telecommunications services.

Pai said at the Aug. 1 meeting that the first phase of the fund distribution would target areas the agency already identifies as unserved, while the second phase would target areas that were either not awarded in the first phase or areas that the agency later determines are underserved once it has more granular coverage data.

The agency also took action to try to improve the accuracy of its broadband coverage data, which has been criticized by trade groups and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Specifically, it approved a report and order establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which will collect "geospatial broadband coverage maps" from internet service providers, according to an FCC fact sheet.

The order also includes a process to crowdsource public input on the accuracy of broadband maps submitted by service providers.

Currently, all facilities-based broadband providers are required to file coverage information twice a year through a Form 477, listing all census blocks where they offer internet access service at speeds that exceed 200 kbps. Critics of the approach note that the FCC's format for submitting information requires providers to report census blocks as "served" even if just one household in a given block meets the criteria.

"Today, we change course and recognize that Form 477 may no longer be fit for its modern uses," said Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr in prepared remarks. "With our new Digital Opportunity Data Collection, we adopt polygon-based maps that will depict with precision the areas where providers actually have broadband networks."

In the same item, the commission advanced a notice of proposed rulemaking that would, in part, seek comment on getting rid of the Form 477 broadband deployment collection following the creation of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

The agency also continued its focus on improving telehealth in rural parts of the country, by approving a report and order that will simplify how the commission calculates discounted rates healthcare providers pay for communications services as a part of its Rural Health Care Program, among other provisions.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who approved in part and dissented in part, said he is concerned that some of the changes, such as the adoption of a new method for determining levels of support in the Rural Health Care program's telecommunications program, will have a negative effect on some participants. The telecommunications program helps subsidize the difference between urban and rural rates for telecom services for certain rural healthcare providers.

The FCC also voted at its August meeting to approve a report and order that aims to streamline licensing procedures for small satellite applicants. The new procedures create an alternative licensing application process that includes a lower application fee and a shorter timeline for review.

Among other items, the commission continued its push to crack down on robocalls.

Specifically, the agency approved a second report and order that would extend the commission's Truth in Caller ID rules, which prohibit misleading caller ID information with the intent to defraud or harm consumers. Among other provisions, the new rules would ban the malicious caller ID spoofing of text messages and international calls. Spoofing involves bad actors temporarily hijacking a legitimate phone number to trick consumers into answering a call or text message.