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As he took on his new role back in January, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave a speech to the Commission’s staff in which he stressed his concerns around the digital divide that exists in the United States. “One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country − between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not … We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans,” Pai said in his remarks.

Many rural residents around the country are high-speed internet have-nots, and have long been calling for better broadband access in their areas. The FCC announced on Thursday some plans to help expand access to broadband in rural America, including setting key rules for a competitive reverse auction that it says will provide nearly $2 billion for rural deployment over the next decade.

“In the upcoming Connect America Fund Phase II auction, providers will compete for support to expand broadband to unserved areas, along with voice service,” an FCC statement reads. “The auction rules established today aim to maximize the value the American people will receive for the Connect America Fund dollars spent by balancing deployment of higher-quality services with cost efficiencies.”

The FCC further says that the action focuses on census blocks unserved by broadband in 20 states where the nation’s largest carriers – known as “price cap” carriers – declined last year’s Connect America Fund offer of support. Also included in the auction are locations across the country with very high deployment costs.

The Order reportedly balances incentives for deployment of higher-quality services with cost efficiencies by establishing auction “weights” that credit bids by companies offering more robust service. More specifics are available here.

“CAF-II incorporates rules that my colleagues, Commissioners Clyburn and O’Rielly, and I hammered out last year to induce new entrants to participate — competitive entrants like wireless internet service providers, small-town cable operators, and electric utilities,” Pai comments. “And today, we adopt auction weights designed to give every bidder — no matter what technology they use — a meaningful opportunity to compete for federal funds, while ensuring the best value for the American taxpayer.”

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn commended the move in statement, but pointed out she would have preferred to include a Tribal bidding credit in the item. “As I witnessed during my #ConnectingCommunities tour, there are many unique challenges to bringing broadband to Tribal lands, and I lament this missed opportunity to bring these communities much-needed connectivity,” she notes.

Clyburn further points out that encouraging network deployment is just one part of expanding access in underserved areas, with affordability being another important factor. “We will never truly address, nor will we ever successfully close the digital and opportunities divide in this country by simply supporting a single broadband provider in an area and hoping to co-opt the line from a disembodied voice from ‘Field of Dreams,’ that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ In wealthy areas, deployment with very little else, makes broadband truly 'available' to the people who live there. In less prosperous communities, mere deployment, is but a technology bridge to nowhere,” she writes.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly used his statement to approve and dissent in part. “I am concerned that the tiers adopted today will have the effect of spending a disproportionate amount of funding on services that far exceed what we can afford, and concentrating that funding in relatively low-cost areas,” he says. “The impact of tipping the scales is far from trivial. According to one filing, it could mean the difference in serving hundreds of thousands of additional locations.”

Access to all the statements is available here.

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