The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) cried foul yesterday when U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) introduced the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act (RBAA), which would steer the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction away from wireless internet service providers.
The legislation directs the FCC to accelerate the deployment of RDOF funds to bidders that commit to build a gigabit-symmetric (1,000 Mbps download/1,000 Mbps upload) broadband network, begin construction within six months and provide internet service within a year. Mike Wendy, director of communications, WISPA, said the legislation would be wasteful expenditure of money to provide internet service, which otherwise could be provided more economically by WISPs.
“There is a big sell that fiber is the answer to the digital divide that a 1 gig symmetric is the best way for people to have economic opportunity and anything less disenfranchises the populace,” Wendy said. “Congress has bought this line of reasoning hook, line and sinker. Gigabit is the shiny object. People say that they can’t get Netflix if they don’t have gigabit speeds. It is obviously preposterous. It’s irrational. It short-circuits the RDOF auction, bringing diverse ideas together to get the optimal level of service and cost.”
The Clyburn-Upton language was included in the HEROES Act, which passed the House earlier this month. The bill is the result of heavy lobbying by the electric cooperatives, according to Wendy. Telecom industry publication Telecompetitor noted that representatives of rural electric companies, including one from Upton’s congressional district, were on hand for the press briefing for the RBAA.
“In the 1930s, rural electric cooperatives, in partnership with the federal government, helped pull rural economies out of the Great Depression,” said Whip Clyburn. “As our great nation turns from COVID response to recovery, I believe that co-ops must update and adapt their mission for the 21st century and bring broadband access to their membership.”
Last month in an open letter to the Congress, the CEOs of more than 70 rural electric cooperatives committed to fiber-to-the-premise (FttP) construction projects if the Clyburn-Upton proposal were adopted. Additionally, Sen. Upton’s press release on the RBAA touts eight FttP broadband projects ready to begin construction in South Carolina and three FttP projects underway in Michigan, with more just awaiting RDOF funding.
Cable companies, such as Mediacom, don’t even offer a gig symmetric in cities, instead offering three tiers: 60/5 mbps, 100/10 Mbps and 1,000/50 Mpbs. WISPs offer a range of speeds – up to gigabit symmetric, and they do lay fiber where necessary to meet the needs of the user. The speeds vary with each WISP, depending on geography, population density and access to capital. Typical systems offer at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed wireless, which is the FCC’s definition of broadband. Wendy compared the promise of running a gig symmetric to every rural home to building a five-lane highway to each of those residences.
“The bill favors electric co-ops; it seeks to put those bidders at the top of the heap,” Wendy said. “There is a misunderstanding that fiber is future-proof and that if you don’t have fiber, you don’t have broadband. These rural FttP systems will be gold-plated facilities that will never be fully used coming out at the top price. It is a boondoggle.”
WISPs can provide coverage at 15 percent of the costs of fiber, according to WISPA studies. Wendy noted that WISPs serve 6 million Americans without the statutory protection, without access to tens of millions of utility poles, rights of way or easements or statutory protection enjoyed by electric co-ops and telephone companies. “We can do it quicker; more cost-effectively and our services can evolve, as well,” he said.
At the FCC’s June 9 open meeting, it will vote on finalizing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s draft procedures for the upcoming $16 billion Phase I RDOF auction (Auction 904). With financial support from the auction, service providers will expand broadband service to unserved or underserved homes and businesses in rural areas. Auction 904 is the first phase of the Commission’s $20.4 billion RDOF initiative, which is modeled on the Connect America Fund Phase II auction in 2018. Bidding in Auction 904 is scheduled to begin on Oct. 29, 2020.
“A sudden shift in a well-deliberated FCC process to close the digital divide will actually prevent that process from closing [the digital divide] for years to come,” Wendy said. “WISPs are already out there – today – ready to do more. No one has to wait a year for high-speed service. The Clyburn-Upton proposal, though well-meaning, will greatly harm the FCC’s inclusive process, favoring a group of players who will only break ground to bring broadband to the unserved when significant government funding is available.”
The bipartisan legislation that directs the FCC to fund “shovel-ready, high-speed internet projects immediately, so consumers can access broadband within a year” cites statistics that say 25 percent of rural residences lack adequate, affordable internet service.
“During the coronavirus crisis, millions of Americans have adjusted to spending more time at home – working, running their business, taking classes, and zooming with friends and family,” Congressman Upton said. “But too many Americans have found themselves without access to dependable broadband services — especially in rural counties like in southwest Michigan – making those tasks nearly impossible to do. With so much uncertainty in today’s world, Americans should be able to be certain about this: affordable, reliable internet. If we can pass this bipartisan bill and implement it, it might be one of the biggest leaps for rural America in our lifetime.”
In recent weeks, other rural phone and electric co-ops have also expressed support. They say 100 co-op fiber projects would result in 300,000 miles of fiber construction, passing more than 2 million rural homes, and 5 million rural residents. The economic effect is projected to be $8.25 billion of construction, approximately half of which would come from RDOF and half from the co-ops investing in their local communities.
“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the severity and magnitude of the rural-urban digital divide,” House Majority Whip Clyburn said. “Telework, telemedicine and distance learning are impossible in areas without broadband access. Our bipartisan legislation will fund hundreds of rural broadband construction projects immediately. I have made it my mission to ensure high-speed internet is accessible and affordable to all, and seeing the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act signed into law as we continue the federal response to the COVID crisis is my top priority.”
With unemployment skyrocketing, the bills promise of delivering 240 thousand new jobs with each 100 new projects is bound to sound pretty good to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
elivering 240 thousand new jobs with each 100 new projects is bound to sound pretty good to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.