As the dust settles around the first phase of the FCC's $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, one US Senator has taken aim at a longtime telecom provider and its plans to deploy 1Gbit/s services in West Virginia.
"The stakes are simply too high to provide nearly $250 million [for services in West Virginia] to a company that does not have the capability to deliver on the commitments made to the FCC," wrote Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, in a letter to the outgoing chairman of the FCC.
Capito argued that Frontier – which won a total of around $371 million in RDOF money for rural broadband in eight states – should not be trusted to use the cash to deploy gigabit services in her state.
"Frontier's mismanagement of prior federal funding through the Broadband Technology Opportunity Fund program, resulting in $4.7 million in funds repaid to the federal government for improper use, raises significant questions about their ability to manage federal funds of this magnitude," Capito wrote in her letter. "Furthermore, Frontier has a documented pattern of history demonstrating inability to meet FCC deadlines for completion of Connect America Fund Phase II support in West Virginia. The inability to deploy federal funds in a timely fashion to make improvements to a network delivering broadband service at speeds of 10/1Mbit/s or higher should raise significant concerns about their capacity to build out a network delivering 100 times that level."
In a statement to Light Reading, Frontier cited the FCC's quiet period – which prevents RDOF participants from discussing their plans – as its reason for dodging Captio's concerns.
"Frontier has filed a short form to participate in the RDOF auction," the company said. "We cannot comment beyond what has been made publicly available by the FCC due to quiet period regulations."
The quiet period is expected to end next month.
As with several other FCC programs designed to allocate money for rural networks, the RDOF was a reverse auction where companies and entities that submit the lowest bid for covering a particular area win – however, then they're on the hook to cover that area with broadband services.
Frontier was one of the top winners in the auction, scoring money to build network connections in roughly 127,000 locations spanning eight states. The company said it would meet its obligations using a mixture of fiber and fixed wireless technologies. However, the company has not yet filed its detailed, "long form" deployment plans.
An FCC representative did not immediately respond to questions about Capito's letter regarding Frontier.
To be clear, Capito isn't the only one raising concerns over the FCC's RDOF auction. For example, public-interest group Free Press is arguing the event is a "boondoggle" that allocates more than $700 million for network services in non-rural areas.
Others too have raised questions about the other companies in the auction that won significant chunks of money, including the many fixed wireless providers that argue they can provide 1Gbit/s services.
"We are unaware of any technological developments that would cause a 10x increase in fixed wireless performance and therefore, have some skepticism that the promises will be borne out," wrote the analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors this weekend.
Now, though, the FCC is essentially stuck with its RDOF winners. And the agency will now be forced to enforce its RDOF buildout goals, either by carefully evaluating winners' "long form" deployment applications or by waiting to see if the companies can pull off what they have said they'll do.
"The question for the FCC is how it will ensure that the parties live up to their commitments and then how will it address those cases where they don't," the New Street analysts wrote.
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