US operators have until 27 August to gather evidence and make the case for additional locations to be added to a map of areas eligible to receive support from a $4.53 billion pot of federal funds.
The money is set to be distributed later this year as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Mobility Fund Phase II auction, with the goal of expanding LTE deployments in rural areas.
An initial eligibility map, based on coverage data submitted by operators and the Universal Service Administrative Company, was released in February. Areas determined to already have adequate coverage were not included among the locations eligible for funding.
But a months-long challenge process established by the FCC will allow interested parties, including operators and governments, to dispute the accuracy of the coverage maps by submitting current speed tests to prove a lack of sufficient coverage. Providers claiming existing coverage will be given a chance to rebuff those test results before FCC staff make a decision on whether an area needs to be added to the map.
Getting the map right is a “critical issue” for smaller US operators and rural consumers, Steven Berry, CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, told Mobile World Live (MWL).
Earlier this year, the FCC issued a report which found around 14 million US citizens in rural areas and 1.2 million people on tribal lands lack access to adequate LTE service. Berry said it’s extremely important the Mobility Fund Phase II eligibility map reflects the on-the-ground reality. He added the initial map “missed the mark by a long shot” and could “result in many rural areas being deemed ineligible for critical” funding support if not corrected.
In March, a group of eight US senators wrote to FCC chairman Ajit Pai expressing “serious concerns” the map “misrepresents the existence of 4G LTE service in many areas”.
Ben Moncrief, VP of government relations for C Spire, the sixth-largest wireless operator in the US, echoed those sentiments in a statement to MWL, adding that for the challenge process to be effective it must be based on “standardised, reliable data”.
But in his reply to the senators, Pai said the FCC expected the backlash to the initial map and specifically designed the challenge process as an effective way to address concerns about eligible areas.
He added the FCC will help operators target their challenge efforts by releasing a map of areas which were not included because only one unsubsidised operator claimed to provide an adequate level of service. Pai noted those areas are “most susceptible” to successfully being challenged.
Additionally, Pai said the FCC is planning to hold “multiple events” across the country in April and May to get state, local and tribal government entities involved in the challenge process.
“The FCC is focused on ensuring that our limited funds are effectively and accurately targeted to areas that lack unsubsidised 4G LTE service. This is a vital part of our strategy toward closing the wireless dimension of the digital divide.”