Internet access is more than a simple luxury: it’s a requirement for nearly every profession, not to mention education and other critical aspects of daily life. Despite this, tens of millions of Americans are still without reliable internet access. This is a problem that the designers of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, or RDOF, seek to fix.
What is RDOF, and how does it work? In this article, we’ll detail the specifics of how this FCC initiative will work, as well as how it will benefit millions of people living in rural and underserved areas across the country.
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: How It Works
In today’s world, those who do not have access to modern communications technology are at a decided disadvantage compared to those who do. Digital communications have become a crucial part of our lives, from keeping our financial affairs in order, making doctor’s appointments, and ordering groceries. Students utilize the internet to research projects, communicate with teachers, submit homework assignments, and even attend classes. However, many families, especially those in rural areas, cannot easily access the internet or cannot afford to pay the premiums to have the required infrastructure installed in their area.
The issues caused by the digital divide between students with easy internet access and those without were exacerbated by the recent pandemic and ensuing lockdown, when most schools in the country were forced to transition to distance learning.
Federally funded programs such as BEAD and RDOF seek to address the problems caused by this divide. Through RDOF, the FCC is allocating $20.4 billion to deploy high-speed broadband networks to rural communities all over the country. It is paid for by the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, or USF. This renders it immune to having its funds appropriated by legislative bodies. The funds will be distributed over the course of 10 years with communities able to apply if they meet the requirements.
What Areas Are Eligible?
RDOF is being deployed in several phases, with the first $16 billion being assigned specifically to areas that lack 25 Mbps upstream broadband service. In most cases, these areas are lacking specifically because there is no provider offering high-speed internet in the area.
The FCC determines where these areas are based on census results. After publishing an initial list, they allowed for a challenge process. After the completion of this process, they then published the final list of eligible areas. The FCC has published their eligible areas as a series of searchable maps, which narrow everything down to individual census blocks and simplify the process of understanding how the rollout will work.
Who Are The Internet Service Providers?
The FCC determines which companies will provide RDOF-funded internet service through a multi-step application process. It begins with interested parties filling out a short-form application. When that is approved, they can then bid for contracts during a reverse auction. This means that they will bid using the fees they are willing to accept. Winning bidders then fill out long-form applications. Winners can also assign their winning bids to organizations they are affiliated with.
Some of the winners of the RDOF auction were Charter Communications, LTD Broadband, and Frontier Communications. Each of these organizations, and many others, will get access to RDOF funds and begin construction of their broadband networks.
What Are the Key Benefits of RDOF?
RDOF has several very important benefits for broadband services in rural communities across the US. One is that it allows multiple auction winners to share their services in a given area. This allows them to work together and provide more than one way to access broadband for local schools, businesses, and individuals.
The goal of RDOF is to provide internet access to underserved areas, hence, the competitive nature of the method of providing the funds. It’s critically important that local schools, small businesses, and individuals can access the internet, and the fund will help to achieve that.
More Benefits for the Local Community
For communities that receive RDOF-funded internet access, there will be both direct and indirect benefits. The most obvious is education for people of all ages: from distance learning and submitting homework to college students looking to earn online degrees.
The internet also brings small businesses into the global market, meaning local economies will receive a boost from being able to sell their products to consumers who are not necessarily located nearby.
A boost in the economy will bring more employers to rural communities. As businesses are able to connect, they will draw in other businesses looking to take advantage of the success. More businesses mean more jobs, further boosting the community and helping it to thrive. This will also allow interested entrepreneurs to start their own businesses, as well, as they’ll be connected to the wider world.
Healthcare is another important benefit. Rural communities are often served by small hospitals, which require internet access to communicate with larger clinics. Often, it’s these larger clinics that have the advanced equipment required to provide aid for certain medical issues. Seamless communication between large and small healthcare providers will make it far easier for the residents of rural areas to get the healthcare they need.
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