Every year by law the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has to “determine whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If not, the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” While broadband data is in better shape, there are still critical gaps that mean we don’t have enough data to fully answer the question.
The Federal Communications Commission's new version of the National Broadband Map includes a dramatic decrease in the number of Unserved and Underserved locations. We now have 7.1 million unserved locations and 3.0 million underserved location. The total of 10.1 million locations is a decrease of 16% from the 11.9 million locations that were unserved and underserved six months earlier. As Chairwoman Rosenworcel said in a blog post, I’m sure we’re seeing some of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund projects start to light up.
Small rural internet service providers (ISPs) had until the end of September to tell the Federal Communications Commission whether they wanted to participate in the Enhanced ACAM program. The E-ACAM program extends subsidies to these small providers through 2038, and in exchange the providers will serve all locations in their territory with 100/20 Mbps broadband, making most of them ineligible for the BEAD program.
A tour of the remaining United States Digital Divide from a home in Quincy (CA) to an unserved farm in Newton (NC) to a home in Troy (AL). These locations (and more) are from a random sample of BEAD-eligible unserved and underserved locations that are not part of the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) or Alternative Connect America Model (A-CAM) programs.
We could theoretically reach 94% of the Unserved and Underserved locations nationally. We only miss 750,000 locations. The biggest misses by percentage are Iowa (61% of Unserved and Underserved), Idaho (66%), Illinois, Kansas, and California (all 71%), Minnesota (76%), and Colorado and Nebraska (about 80%). I find it helpful to think about this as a simple math problem: how far the money might go can be estimated by multiplying the number of locations that need service times the average cost to serve them. There are 11.9 million Unserved and Underserved locations nationally.
The Federal Communications Commission published its first “illustrative run” of what the offers might be to broadband providers who elect extended subsidies in exchange for agreeing to bring 100/20 broadband to every location in their “study area.” With this illustrative run document, it now appears that if all the ISPs accept the FCC’s offer, 1.3 million locations would be ineligible for BEAD funding because the FCC would have an enforceable commitment from the ISP to bring service to that location.
The Federal Communications Commission released a Report and Order creating the Enhanced Alternative Connect America Cost Model program which extends subsidies for rural broadband providers for 10 additional years (beyond the remaining 5 years) at a cost of $1.27 to $1.33 billion annually to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. In exchange, any ISP that elects this subsidy would be required to deploy 100/20 broadband to everyone in its service area.
Recently I wrote about how there are too many locations in the National Broadband Map when you compare it with the recently-released Census count of housing units. In rural areas, there are 30.1 million housing and business units according the National Broadband Map, and 24.6 million housing units according to the Census. This isn’t just academic.
How can we make the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program funding go as far as possible? The answer is that state grant plans need to be laser focused on how to generate competition and keep costs as low as possible. If we can do that, we stretch the BEAD dollars as far as possible. If we don’t, we run out of money. It’s really quite easy to construct this framework. We only need two pieces of data: the number of unserved and underserved locations, and what we pay to reach them.
Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) generated snickers and some jeers when he tweeted his excitement about the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding for Alabama. Even Twitter thought it necessary to add the context that Sen Tuberville voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that is providing this funding.