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March 12, 2020
The FCC recently signed off on a plan to allocate up to $20.4 billion for rural broadband. However, New York is the only continental US state not eligible for the bulk of this funding.
Not surprisingly, this is an issue raising concerns among New Yorkers and others.
At issue is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, created by the FCC in late January to bring "digital opportunity to Americans living on the wrong side of the digital divide." It earmarks up to $20.4 billion to pay telecom companies to extend Internet connections to around 6 million homes in the US that lack broadband services
But New York isn't eligible for the initial $16 billion in RDOF funding. The FCC said this is because New York has already received federal funding for broadband deployment. This happened back in 2015, when Verizon declined a $170 million Connect America Fund award (the FCC's RDOF is based on its CAF program that was designed to provide government subsidies to telecom companies to build services in rural areas).
When Verizon declined the CAF money, the FCC decided to allocate that money directly to the state of New York to increase broadband access.
But New York officials argue that shouldn't affect the state's position in the RDOF.
"State officials were never informed that disbursing CAF funding in this way would have any impact on future RDOF funding eligibility," a group of Congressional lawmakers, led by New York Rep. Antonio Delgado, wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. They asked the FCC to reconsider its decision to exclude New York from its RDOF program.
Troubles in New York
The CAF money awarded to the state of New York hasn't fixed its broadband problems. For example, Syracuse is still considered one of the nation's ten worst cities for broadband, with one in four residents lacking high-speed Internet, according to local reports. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel visited upstate New York and found families with kids who cannot do their homework because they lack Internet access. She disagrees with her agency's decision to exclude New York from the first phase of RDOF funding.
Some people in upstate New York use their mobile phones as their primary Internet connections. But unlike New York City, which is on track to add more 4G and 5G nodes throughout the city, upstate New York has spotty cellular service in a number of places. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has established an Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force to try to work with the wireless industry to increase coverage.
Upstate New York is not the only area likely to be excluded from the first phase of the RDOF. According to Rosenworcel, some underserved census blocks will be excluded simply because a small part of the area already has access to broadband. "Right now, if a single subscriber in a census block is identified as having broadband, we conclude broadband is available throughout. That's not right," Rosenworcel wrote after the agency approved the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. "If your home is marked as served by the FCC's maps today and it is not, then for the next decade you are on your own." Rosenworcel is advocating for the creation of more detailed broadband maps in areas where coverage is spotty, but the Commission has voted not to delay funding and plans to move forward with existing maps.
Importantly, new legislation from Congress would require the FCC to improve its maps.
Another potential concern is whether the RDOF money will be effective in crossing the digital divide. For example, as reported by Ars Technica, CenturyLink and Frontier did not deploy telecom services in all the locations they were supposed to under the FCC's previous CAF program for rural broadband deployment.
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse
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