The Federal Communications Commission has approved rules that will help electric cooperatives compete in the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the largest auction ever of funds for rural broadband.

The commission agreed to offer smaller unserved census block groups in the bidding and exclude developers of the not-yet-operational "low-earth orbit" technology from gigabit service tier, a speed that electric co-ops can readily supply with fiber-optic connections. Some broadband developers are seeking to launch satellites into low-earth orbit to provide global internet access.

"NRECA and member cooperatives had urged the commission to adopt these procedures," said Brian O'Hara, regulatory issues director at the national association. "The FCC's approval of these rules is a big step forward in making sure the auction happens on time."

Phase I of the auction opens Oct. 29 with up to $16 billion in funding for unserved census blocks up for bid. Winners will receive funds over a 10-year period to deploy broadband to these areas and must meet service milestones set by the commission for specific years.

The FCC is expected to unveil the eligible locations by census block group soon. Short form applications for the commission's initial nod to participate in the auction must be filed July 1-15.

O'Hara said using smaller census block groups helps co-ops ensure these areas are in or near their service territory and close to existing infrastructure, reducing costs and regulatory delays. He added that co-ops argued against allowing low-earth orbit technology because it is not yet operational and, if unsuccessful, could ultimately leave rural communities behind.

"The RDOF is not a R&D fund, but it is there to help assist communities get broadband from proven technologies," he said.

The FCC, however, will allow fixed wireless providers to compete in the gigabit space, subject to a case-by-case review. This technology is cheaper, allowing providers to underbid co-ops.  However, delivering high-speed access via fixed wireless can be impacted by dense foliage, terrain and spectrum, among other things, and result in less reliable service for rural communities. NRECA advocated for heightened scrutiny of these applications. 

"NRECA and other rural entities called for this check, and the FCC provided it," said O'Hara. "It's not as transparent as we'd like, but it does require additional steps by wireless bidders and review by the FCC. It's a step in the right direction."