House Democrats are reportedly putting the finishing touches on a broadband-only infrastructure spending bill that could allocate as much as $80 billion to broadband deployment and digital equity. A formal announcement is expected in February.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
NTIA is sponsoring an all-day Smart Agriculture & Rural Supercluster Workshop in Phoenix, AZ, on February 19, 2020 (registration; agenda). The February webinar is The Role of States in Expanding Broadband Access and will also be held on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. Information from past webinars is available in the webinar archive. The BroadbandUSA Newsletter for January is available.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Rural Utilities Service
On December 12, the USDA announced that $550 million would be available in 2020 for a further round of ReConnect Program applications. Once again, the program will be split between grant only, 50/50 grant/loan, and loan only, with up to $200 million available in each category. The official funding announcement is available here. Application forms and other resources are here. The application window for all three categories of 2020 ReConnect funding opens January 31, 2020, and closes March 16, 2020. (Last year, each category had a separate window.)
ReConnect training workshops are again underway around the country, with upcoming events in Seattle, Denver and Atlanta. Recent ReConnect funding announcements include multi-million dollar projects in Arkansas, West Virginia, Virginia, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. A map showing all proposed and approved ReConnect projects in 2019 is available here. Application dates for RUS Community Connect Grants and Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grants for 2020 have not been announced.
The FCC’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Advisory Task Force met for the first time on December 9; the meeting can be viewed here. USDA’s recent report on rural broadband infrastructure focused on next-generation precision agriculture.
Federal Communications Commission
The Commission’s next meeting will be January 30, 2020; the agenda includes a Report and Order that will establish rules for the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) which will distribute high-cost universal service support through reverse auctions to bring high-speed broadband to unserved areas. Other items include hearing aid compatible headset rules, Video Relay Services (for the disabled), modernizing broadcast TV notice delivery requirements, and an enforcement action.
Suspension and Debarment
The FCC in December 2019 adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to expand the agency’s suspension and debarment rules. Although the FCC has suspension and debarment rules that already apply to E-rate and the other universal service programs, the proposed rules would apply to all FCC programs and would give the Commission more discretion to suspend or debar program participants prior to completing a formal fact-finding investigation. Suspended and debarred entities would be placed on a federal government-wide exclusion list, potentially affecting their ability to receive funding from other federal programs. Comments are due February 13; replies are due March 16.
2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window (formerly EBS)
The FCC last summer decided to auction remaining unlicensed Educational Broadband Spectrum (EBS) (2.5 GHz band) to commercial users. This spectrum is suitable for mobile and fixed point-to-point wireless services. Prior to this auction, however, tribal entities in rural areas have a limited opportunity to apply for licenses for available 2.5 GHz spectrum in their areas. This “rural tribal priority window” opens February 3, 2020, and closes August 3, 2020. The FCC has made available a number of resources for the tribes including a mapping tool, information about the application process, and access to training materials. The general FCC website with links to these resources is here: https://www.fcc.gov/25-ghz-rural-tribal-window.
C-Band (3.7-4.2 GHz)
C-Band is mid-band spectrum important for 5G deployment which makes it quite valuable. Broadcast satellite operations are the current licensed users of the spectrum. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in November 2019 announced he wants to reorganize C-Band spectrum by putting existing operators into a 200 MHz band, creating a 20 MHz buffer and then auctioning the remaining 280 MHz band through a public auction. Chairman Pai’s C-Band proposal is expected to be taken up at the February 28 FCC meeting.
The Commission recently approved an NPRM for Facilitating Shared Use in the 3.1-3.55 GHz Band. The 3.1-3.55 GHz band is currently used by the Department of Defense (DOD) for fixed and mobile radar as well as secondary non-federal amateur and experimental users. The Commission’s goal is to relocate non-federal users to clear as much as 100 MHz spectrum for commercial 5G. Comments on these items will be due once they are published in the Federal Register.
The FCC’s CBRS auction of priority access licenses (PALs) is scheduled to begin in June. This spectrum is being used for naval radar so away from the coasts much of the spectrum is fallow. In deciding to reorganize the spectrum, the Commission allowed licensed use (through PALs), and General Authorized Access (GAA), which allows unlicensed access to available channels managed by a frequency coordinator called a Spectrum Access System (SAS). DOD recently released an estimate of costs it will incur to share the spectrum of over $98 million.
5.9 GHz band
The Commission recently approved an NPRM for Promoting Innovation in the 5.9 GHz Band which would reorganize spectrum previously reserved for Dedicated Short Range Communications in order to support development of next-generation “Cellular Vehicle to Everything” (C-V2X) technology as well as increase unlicensed utilization (e.g., more Wi-Fi channels). The FCC proposes to make the lower 45 MHz of the 5850-5925 MHz band available for unlicensed use and allocate the upper 20 MHz for C-V2X.
Category 2 Budgets
The FCC recently issued its long-awaited order making Category 2 (Cat2) budgets permanent. To transition, the FCC extended the five-year Cat2 test period by one year, with the new Cat2 rules starting in 2021. The Cat2 rules for funding year 2020 are effective January 20, 2020; the new Cat2 rules for funding year 2021 and beyond will be effective upon Office Management and Budget approval. On December 19, the Wireline Bureau published further details about how to calculate Cat2 budgeted funding for the 2020 transition year. On January 21, the State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance (SECA) sought limited reconsideration of the Cat2 Order related to the cost-allocation rules applicable to services shared with currently ineligible Non-Instructional Facilities (NIFs). Another reconsideration petition was filed concerning the plight of schools with only part-time students.
Texas Carriers’ E-rate Rulemaking Petition on Overbuilding
At stake is whether the FCC should open a rulemaking to consider changes to program rules governing fiber construction. Recently, Valley TeleCom replied (with exhibits) to the Cochise County (AZ) school superintendent (who had previously responded to an accusatory letter from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly). Schools Health and Library Broadband Coalition (SHLB) recently filed a letter to Chairman Pai responding generally to the Texas carriers.
Amortization of Up-Front Capital Costs
On January 27 the FCC released an order making permanent a suspension of the rule requiring carriers to amortize their up-front costs for capital expenditures associated with E-rate eligible services. The order will be effective 30 days after Federal Register publication.
Rural Health Care (RHC) Program
2019 Funding Demand
The concern is high that the demand again exceeds available funding, at least for the $150 million allocated to the Healthcare Connect Fund for multi-year and infrastructure costs. The RHC Reform Order issued in August created a new prioritization mechanism for when funding demand exceeds the funding cap, but those rules are not in effect for this funding year. The FCC recently released guidance for the different effective dates for the many new rules enacted in the RHC Reform Order.
RHC Reform Order
On November 12, 2019, several parties including SHLB, each filed petitions for reconsideration or clarification of the recent. Other parties filing petitions included the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association (NCTNA) and Southern Ohio Health Care Network (SOHCN) (filing jointly), US Telecom, the Governor of Alaska, and Alaska Communications. (On October 21, GCI (the other major carrier in Alaska) also filed a petition for review in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.) No oppositions to any of the petitions were filed; comments supporting the petitions can be viewed here.
On October 1, the DC Circuit upheld in significant part the FCC’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules, as well as the so-called transparency rule which requires carriers to disclose changes in their terms of service. The decision in Mozilla vs. FCC was not a complete win for the FCC, as the Court reversed the FCC on blanket state preemption and remanded several issues including jurisdictional questions over pole attachment regulation and funding broadband through the Lifeline Program. After requesting additional time from the Court, on December 13, 2019, Mozilla and other parties sought rehearing en banc at the DC Circuit – links to all of the petitions for rehearing are available here. Parties on both sides have confirmed that the pending federal court cases in California and Vermont remain stayed until all judicial remedies are exhausted, including Supreme Court review if it eventually occurs.
In December, the FCC issued citations, orders, and admonishments to a variety of companies for failing to disclose network management practices, performance, and commercial terms for their Broadband Internet Access Services (BIAS) offerings (as required by the FCC’s Transparency Rule.) Failure to comply within 30 days could result in fines or forfeitures.