After years of delay, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has revived plans to subsidise 5G network deployments in underserved areas.

Nick Wood

March 21, 2024

3 Min Read

Called the 5G Fund for Rural America, it proposes distributing $9 billion over the next decade to deliver coverage to the 14 million homes and businesses that currently don't have 5G, and that are unlikely to get it any time soon because the numbers don't add up for operators.

The scheme was originally launched back in 2020 (PDF), but when it came to identifying areas with insufficient coverage, it became evident from the FCC's initial coverage map that the data was lacking detail.

So, the watchdog went back and revised its official coverage maps – a process that took years – eventually publishing a pre-production draft of a new edition in November 2022. The FCC has been making incremental improvements ever since, publishing its National Broadband Map 3.0 last November.

"For the first time in our history of supporting wireless networks through the universal service system, this agency has comprehensive data about where service is and is not all across the country," said FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel this week. "This will be the foundation of our plan to expand the 5G service in rural America to where it is needed most – where people live, work and travel."

Rosenworcel has called on the Commission to vote on whether to relaunch the fund.

She has also circulated a new Report and Order proposing a few tweaks to the programme. These include modifying the definition of areas eligible for the auction and ensuring that areas in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands that meet the criteria are included.

She also wants to increase the budget by an unspecified amount, and suggested that more money be set aside specifically to improve coverage in tribal communities. Rosenworcel also wants participants to implement cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans as a condition of receiving financial support.

Furthermore, the 5G fund also includes up to $900 million of incentives for incorporating Open RAN technology in subsidised networks.

As things stand, Open RAN is better suited to greenfield deployments than brownfield, and there are still doubts about whether it can match the performance of traditional RAN in dense, urban environments, so there is sound logic behind its inclusion in this scheme.

The US is also banking on Open RAN to advance its policy of promoting telecoms supply chain diversification and resilience, and fostering an ecosystem of homegrown kit makers.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has allocated $1.5 billion to its Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund, which is basically designed to drive Open RAN development.

In February it doled out $42 million of grants to a group led by AT&T and Verizon to fund a new Open RAN testing, evaluation and R&D centre in Dallas, Texas, plus a satellite facility in Washington DC. A month earlier, Dish received a $50 million chunk of change to build the Open RAN Centre for Integration & Deployment (ORCID).

As for the FCC's rural 5G fund, it's now a case of whether it becomes another political football.

The Democrat majority at the Commission means a vote along party lines will go in Rosenworcel's favour, but that won't necessarily prevent a few slings and arrows from any dissenting Republicans.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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