The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extended financial relief to a handful of operators offering broadband service on tribal lands, allowing them to recoup a larger amount of their operating costs through federal funding.

In its order, the commission recognised tribal lands are often located in remote areas and present significant obstacles for mobile and fixed operators which increase the cost of entry and reduce the profitability of providing service. Accordingly, it raised the limit on the amount of operating costs those companies can recoup from the Universal Service Fund.

Under the new rules, the refund limitation was raised so a provider with $20,000 in operating expenses, which was formerly eligible for reimbursement of 58 per cent of those expenses, can now seek support for 89 per cent of its output.

However, the move is only expected to benefit a total of five operators, none of which are tier-one providers, in 2018 due to restrictions on eligibility for the higher refund.

Not enough
All five FCC commissioners voted to approve the order, but chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn all said the measure should have gone further. Both Clyburn and Rosenworcel noted the eligibility restrictions mean some operators providing service on tribal lands won’t receive any relief. Clyburn said the exclusion “does not promote fully a rapid and sustainable broadband service deployment on these lands.”

The measure comes as the FCC aims to encourage broadband deployments in rural areas to close a persistent digital divide in the US. In February, the FCC issued a report noting more than a third of citizens on tribal lands (around 1.2 million people) lack access to LTE broadband speeds of 10Mb/s download and 3Mb/s upload.

Later this year, the FCC is expected to kick off its Mobility Fund Phase II auction, which will make up to $4.53 billion in support available over ten years to help providers in primarily rural areas expand LTE service.