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FCC announces $1.2B rural broadband fund for 32 states

The news: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it’s funding as much as $1.2 billion through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand broadband access in 32 states.

What this means: The funding is independent of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year. That bill budgeted $65 billion for investing in access to reliable, high-speed broadband access and is the largest funding round so far, per The Verge.

  • Twenty-three providers will bring broadband service to over 1 million locations. 
  • The Rural Broadband Accountability Plan, will ensure compliance and monitor the rollout of programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
  • “Today’s announcement means more connectivity is coming to consumers, while we continue our commitment to make sure that funding goes to areas that truly need it,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
  • With funding comes responsibility. The FCC awarded $9.2 billion in 2020 under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, of which, $886 million went to SpaceX. It later found that the satellite internet company was not providing enough coverage to rural areas.

The bigger picture: The pandemic has only amplified the gaps in broadband connectivity affecting rural communities and millions of users required to work and attend school remotely, adding urgency to the funding of broadband initiatives.

Improved countrywide access can also result in an economic upshot. The national high-speed internet initiatives providing universal, reliable internet may add $160 billion per year to the US economy, according to a study conducted by the Aspen Economic Strategy Group (AESG).

  • Around 18.5 million US households lack broadband access because of its cost. Those making under $30,000 per year shoulder most of the burden.
  • The Verge released an interactive US map last year based on an anonymized Microsoft dataset, illustrating US counties where less than 15% of households use the internet at broadband speeds (25 Mbs). Many of these counties were clustered in rural areas.

What’s the catch? Expediency is key. Releasing the funds and actively monitoring the deployment of broadband infrastructure is long overdue for areas that need it the most. However, general component shortages, specifically fiber shortages, could further delay wider broadband adoption.