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Redzone rejects $500,000 in RDOF money over mapping snafu

Fixed wireless Internet provider Redzone Wireless said it does not want half a million dollars in government money because the town the cash is intended to help already built a 1Gbit/s fiber network.

"Accepting more than $500,000 in RDOF support to construct a 50/5Mbit/s broadband and voice network to compete with an existing municipally funded symmetric gigabit network would be a waste of taxpayer contributions and contravene commission objectives designed to steer finite support to areas that actually lack service," Redzone told the FCC in a new filing. The company said the town "never should have been available for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction."

At issue are the broadband maps that the FCC used to run its RDOF auction process. The maps are based on information provided by Internet service providers themselves, and have been widely criticized as woefully inaccurate.

However, the FCC chairman who oversaw the RDOF auction, Ajit Pai, argued that the agency's program would allocate funds only to areas that were definitely not served by any Internet service provider. "There are millions of locations we know for a fact are unserved based on any map that you consult," Pai said in 2020 in defense of the program, according to The Verge.

However, as Redzone detailed in its filing, at least one RDOF location was already served – though the company didn't know that when it agreed to provide the town of Islesboro, Maine, with 50Mbit/s Internet services. The FCC's initial RDOF allocation program, which ended last year, was a reverse auction where companies and entities that submitted the lowest bid for covering a particular area won – however, their bids then put them on the hook to cover that area with broadband services.

"Redzone's preparation for the auction was comprehensive, exhaustive and time-consuming. Four members of Redzone's senior management team were dedicated to analysis and planning for a period of two months prior to the auction start," the company wrote. "Redzone's CEO and founder, Jim McKenna, an electrical engineer and former Naval officer, gave the team specific instructions, strongly encouraging them to be conservative in their analysis."

Redzone ultimately bid for more than 200 locations, based on its analysis. It won only one of those locations: Islesboro.

"Mr. McKenna then visited the Town of Islesboro's website and learned that in 2018, the Town of Islesboro completed a municipal fiber construction," Redzone said.

Indeed, the town offers a 5,000-word web page detailing the construction and launch of its network. The town began discussing the construction of a network in 2014 and voters approved a $3.8 million bond for the project in 2016. The network launched in 2018 offering around 600 locations speedy fiber connections for $360 per year.

However, according to Redzone, the town didn't tell the FCC about the network until 2020, a year after the FCC had embarked on its RDOF auction process.

"The integrity of the auction process was tainted by the town, which apparently failed to comply with Form 477 reporting obligations that would have kept Islesboro out of the RDOF auction altogether," Redzone wrote. Form 477 is the document that Internet service providers use to tell the FCC where they provide service.

In its new filing with the FCC, Redzone asked the agency to waive both its RDOF winnings and the $3,000 fine the agency levies on companies that walk away from their RDOF obligations.

Redzone isn't the only company hoping to modify its RDOF bids. Charter, Nextlink and others have made similar requests.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

A version of this article first appeared on Broadband World News.

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