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FCC Awards Billions in Grants to Improve Rural Broadband Access

  • A total of 180 companies awarded $9.2 billion in federal grants to expand rural broadband internet access
  • Effort aims to support smart farming operations as well as increasingly common remote work operations
  • Most recipients plan to expand fiber-optic networks, but SpaceX receives a sizable grant to enhance a satellite system

The Federal Communications Commission has approved $9.2 billion in grants to improve broadband internet access in underserved rural areas. A total of 180 recipients will receive the funds over the next decade to provide improved service to 5.2 million homes in 49 states as well as the Northern Mariana Islands.

Improving rural access to high-speed broadband internet has become a more pressing need in order to support smart farming operations, such as autonomous tractors, data tracking, and other digital tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased demand for better internet access in underserved areas, as remote work becomes more commonplace and employees are more likely to consider making their home in rural areas.

The funds were awarded via auction and sought to incentivize quick implementation at low cost. Most providers promised to offer gigabit speed, while others said they can provide a speed of 100 megabits a second. Companies that received grants must provide the FCC with financial documents and coverage maps, and also certify that they are able to deliver improved broadband internet to 95 percent of the required locations in the states they are serving.

The FCC allocated $16 billion for the auction. The remaining funds will be rolled over into another phase of the effort to improve broadband access, which will focus on underserved areas that have access but are limited in their choice of provider.

Connecticut received the third smallest award among all states and territories served, with $4.2 million allocated to serve 2,899 locations. Two bidders were approved for this work.

One traditional challenge to improving broadband access to rural areas is that it is not cost-effective to lay miles of fiber-optic cable to serve small markets. Cell towers can also be used to improve internet access, and satellites in low-earth orbit can also feasibly be used for the purpose.

SpaceX was one of the main beneficiaries of the auction, receiving $886 million to support its Starlink satellite program. SpaceX has launched nearly 1,000 satellites as part of this effort, and has the largest scope with plans to expand rural broadband access in 35 states.

Most companies that received grants plan to use traditional fiber-optic cable to achieve their goals. The top grant recipients, who each received more than $1 billion, included Charter Communications, LTD Broadband, and the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium.

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