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FCC chairman circulates order for $20.4 billion high-speed broadband fund

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a draft order on Jan. 8 that would launch a fund, to be known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, that would set aside $20.4 billion over 10 years to support the deployment of high-speed broadband in areas underserved by fixed broadband.

The fund will target areas that lack access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads through a reverse auction in two stages. The first phase would make available $16 billion to areas without access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service whatsoever. For the second phase, the FCC intends to utilize a new granular mapping program, known as the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, to target partially served areas. The agency also said the second phase would include areas that do not receive winning bids in the first phase. It will vote on the item at its Jan. 30 open meeting.

The standard of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps is the agency's speed benchmark for fixed broadband.

In August, the agency approved a notice of proposed rulemaking for the fund and an order for the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which the agency has said will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from internet service providers.

Bidders are expected to include a wide variety of entrants, including telephone companies, cable operators, small wireless service providers, some satellite operators and electric utilities, senior FCC officials said Jan. 8.

The majority of the money, according to senior FCC officials, will come from repurposed money that was being spent to provide "model-based" support to certain carriers under the Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which will be terminated as a result of this initiative.

Additional money will come from the Universal Service Fund, which provides subsidies to connect unserved and rural areas with telecommunications services

Pai noted in a Jan. 8 statement that through this order, the agency will "prioritize the deployment of faster-speed service, including gigabit connections."