December 4, 2019 / 8:01 PM / 10 days ago

FCC chair to propose $9 bln in funding for rural wireless coverage over 10 years

WASHINGTON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday said he will propose $9 billion in funding over 10 years to boost next-generation 5G wireless coverage in rural U.S. areas.

That figure is about twice what Pai proposed last year over the same period and would be aimed at helping to bring 5G networks to sparsely populated rural areas that often struggle to get access to wireless services or the internet.

“We must ensure that 5G narrows rather than widens the digital divide and that rural Americans receive the benefits that come from wireless innovation,” Pai said in a statement.

Pai plans to formally propose rules for the funding early next year and he said he would set aside at least $1 billion specifically for deployments facilitating precision agriculture needs. The funding will come from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which comes from surcharges on telephone service. It also provides subsidies to schools and libraries.

Last month, the FCC voted 5-0 to bar funding for equipment from companies it has deemed national security threats, including Huawei Technologies Co and ZTE Corp .

Pai had proposed a $4.5 billion fund over the same period but cancelled that last year until the FCC could extensively review 4G LTE coverage maps. An FCC staff report released Wednesday said coverage maps submitted by Verizon Communications Corp, U.S. Cellular Corp, and T-Mobile Us Inc “likely overstated each provider’s actual coverage and did not reflect on-the-ground performance in many instances.”

The carriers did not immediately comment.

The FCC found that minimum download speeds were achieved in just 62% of staff tests and staff was unable to obtain any 4G LTE signal in many drive tests. The FCC told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that Pai did not plan to bring any enforcement actions against the carriers as a result of the findings.

The FCC said it plans to award the funds in a reverse auction. (Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Tom Brown)

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