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FCC OKs $311M in RDOF payments, pledges to 'clean up' program

The Federal Communications Commission said Monday it is ready to authorize about $311 million in broadband funding across 36 states via the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) alongside several moves that aim to "clean up" certain aspects of the program.

This round of authorization covers plans from 48 broadband providers focused on bringing 1-Gig broadband service to roughly 200,000 homes and businesses over the next ten years. Companies on that list include 3E8 Broadband Solutions, 4-County Fiber LLC, Aeneas Communications, Allen's TV Cable Service Inc., Cincinnati Bell, Consolidated Communications and Cox Communications, among others.

That authorization represents a small slice of some $9.2 billion allocated for phase I of the RDOF auction announced in December 2020.

Cleaning up RDOF

The FCC also announced actions designed to "clean up" the RDOF program stemming from complaints that the program was "poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas."

Tied in, the FCC sent letters to 197 winning bidders from the phase I auction, including Elon Musk's SpaceX/Starlink, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications, Windstream and CenturyLink, that provides them a chance to withdraw their funding requests from areas already served by broadband or "where significant questions of waste have been raised."

Likewise, the FCC said today's actions also make it clear the agency won't tolerate any provider participating in the RDOF program that "is not serious about providing broadband service or has not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals." Two RDOF phase I winners – AB Indiana in Florida and LTD Broadband in California, Oklahoma and Kansas – caught the pointy end of this piece of the FCC's action. The FCC rejected their waiver requests because they failed to act fast enough in seeking state certification.

More specifically, the FCC concluded they both failed to designate as an eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) in each of the geographic areas for which they sought RDOF support. And the Commission did not buy their respective excuses.

"This program can do great things, but it requires thoughtful oversight," Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC's acting chairwoman, said in a release. "That's why we are refocusing the program on unserved areas and putting winning bidders on notice of their obligation to ensure that support goes to the areas that need it. And for those applicants who are dragging their feet or can't meet their obligations, follow the rules or we will disqualify you and move on."

Defaulting bidders list

The FCC also announced sent out an initial list of areas where winning bidders have chosen not to pursue buildout. Those "defaulting bidders" are subject to a base forfeiture per violation of $3,000.

Companies on the defaulting bidders list include Atlantic Broadband, Charter Communications, Hotwire Communications and Horry Telephone Cooperative. Because FCC staff is reviewing data from long-form applications on a rolling basis, the Commission expects to announce additional defaults in future public notices.

Among the group on the initial list, Charter, a big winner in the phase I auction, asked the FCC in May for a limited waiver that would trim down some of its original deployment commitments linked to the RDOF in parts of Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin. That ask came about after discovering that, in small instances, the operator failed to detect some areas that were already served by a broadband provider or had already secured funding for broadband that should not have been included in the RDOF auction.

Among other somewhat recent examples, Redzone Wireless, a fixed wireless ISP, rejected RDOF support of about $500,000 after determining that building a network to compete with an existing municipally-funded 1-Gig network would amount to a "waste of taxpayer contributions."

The FCC's actions drew quick praise from Free Press and the CCA.

Free Press had scrutinized the RDOF process under former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a multi-part investigation pertaining to "questionable applicants." Free Press is still reviewing the FCC's string of recommendations and actions but felt it is also "encouraging that Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel wants to get this right," Free Press Research Director Derek Turner said in a statement.

"The FCC's actions will help ensure that genuinely unserved areas are the ultimate target of much-needed resources for rural America," CCA President and CEO Steven K. Berry, said in a statement. "As we have seen, it is difficult to determine coverage areas without reliable maps, and this is an important step to ensure the integrity of the RDOF program."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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