Electric cooperatives pursuing broadband funding got a long-awaited win this month when the Federal Communications Commission took major steps to improve the way rural areas without high-speed internet access are mapped to qualify for federal dollars.

The agency will require internet service providers to submit highly detailed data about the areas they cover and the service levels they provide. The FCC will use the information to determine areas designated “unserved” or “underserved” and therefore eligible for certain broadband funding programs.

Currently, census blocks can be marked as “served” even if only one household has internet access. The FCC’s new rules will take effect once Congress provides funding and the FCC completes the process to set up the new system.

“We are glad to see the FCC moving forward to improve its rural broadband data collection process that will be the basis for awarding federal broadband funding in the future. It is long overdue,” said Brian O’Hara, NRECA regulatory director for broadband and telecom.

The FCC’s new order will not impact Phase I of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the largest reverse auction of rural broadband funds. That opens Oct. 22 with $16 billion up for bid to deploy broadband in specific rural census blocks determined to be 100% unserved.

The rule, released on July 16, calls for Phase II and the remaining $4.4 billion to be delayed until the new, more detailed broadband data can be collected and analyzed to determine needy locations in partially served census blocks.

“Knowing where true broadband service is or isn’t will facilitate a fairer process when it comes to targeting bids,” said O’Hara. “Once gathered, I believe, the new data will show the number of Americans without broadband to be much higher than current estimates. The question is, will the $4.4 billion set aside for RDOF Phase II be sufficient?”

Commissioners also agreed to exclude fiber-optic cable to deliver retail broadband from its requirement of 6,600 feet between internet connection electronics and the consumer hookup. NRECA had told the FCC that this standard increases the cost to deploy rural broadband where connections can be many miles apart.

The FCC said it will seek public comment on how best to verify service provider data and to establish a challenge process for consumers.

O’Hara said NRECA will be active in those proceedings as it has been in recommending granular data collection. He noted that, while the FCC action was positive for co-ops, there are aspects of the order that are of concern. For example, the agency said it will accept an incumbent internet service providers’ advertised service speeds in determining whether an area is served.

“It is not unlikely that the advertised speed is far faster than the actual speed delivered to the consumers in rural areas,” O’Hara said. “We will continue to work with the commission to ensure the rural membership of electric co-ops are accurately considered for these funds to provide access to high-speed internet service.”

Explore NRECA’s resources on broadband.