A broad coalition of Republican and Democratic senators and representatives have sent a letter to the FCC asking the commission to thoroughly vet RDOF auction winners. At stake is $9 billion in rural broadband funding awarded through the reverse auction, which was completed last year.
The letter was championed by Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune, as well as Representatives James E. Clyburn and Tim Walberg. Also signing the letter were an additional 153 senators and representatives.
Service providers were required to submit a short-form application in order to participate in the auction, which awarded funding for an area to the bidder that committed to deploying broadband to unserved locations in the area for the lowest level of support. A weighting system favored bids to provider faster service with lower latency.
Senator Smith and Senator Klobuchar both signed the letter. Here’s the paragraph (from the letter) that highlights their concern…
As responsible stewards of USF funds, we ask that the FCC redouble its efforts to review the long-form applications that will now be submitted. We urge the FCC to validate that each provider in fact has the technical, financial, managerial, operational skills, capabilities, and resources to deliver the services that they have pledged for every American they plan to serve regardless of the technology they use. We also strongly encourage the FCC to make as public as possible the status of its review and consider opportunities for public input on the applications. Such transparency and accountability will be essential to ensure the success of this program and to minimize any opportunities for fraud or abuse.
I have written about some of the concern about RDOF in Minnesota. And just earlier today I wrote about how many providers do not seem to be meeting their obligations in deploying broadband with federal CAFII funding. Here concerns outlined by Telecompetitor…
As Telecompetitor has noted, the 10 biggest RDOF winners won a combined 76% of the total funding awarded. Four of those winners are companies that traditionally have used fixed wireless technology who bid in the highest speed category (1 Gbps downstream), at least for some areas.
Fixed wireless equipment manufacturers persuaded the FCC that they had equipment capable of supporting gigabit speeds, although the technology is relatively unproven, especially for rural areas. Perhaps recognizing that, the big fixed wireless RDOF winners left themselves the option of deploying fiber broadband to meet their buildout requirements – one of them even bid to use fiber broadband exclusively for gigabit deployments. But some stakeholders have questioned whether some of the winners can afford to deploy gigabit fiber for the level of support awarded.
Also among the top 10 RDOF winners is satellite broadband provider SpaceX, whose technology also is relatively unproven. The company is in the process of deploying a constellation of non-geostationary satellites to support its bid in the second-highest speed category – 100 Mbps downstream.
The results of the RDOF awards (large amounts of federal funding going to broadband providers in rural areas) are creating concern for rural communities – especially in Minnesota. I’ve written about it before – the concern is that one provider received most of the funding being invested in Minnesota over the next 10 years through the fund. That provider (LTD Broadband) is known for the work in fixed wireless but the funding is to deploy fiber.
An immediate concern is that communities have submitted proposals to the Office of Broadband Development before the RDOF announcement was made and are worried that the RDOF award will impact their chances at state funding and/or require changes to their proposals to qualify for state funding. Le Sueur County has shared a letter with me that they have sent to the Office of Broadband Development outlining their concerns. (Pasted below.) I know others have sent or plan to send similar letters. I invite folks to send me copies and I will compile them here for the public archive.
Minnesota Office of Broadband Development
Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development
First National Bank Building
332 Minnesota Street, Suite E200
St. Paul, MN 55101
December 15, 2020
Dear Office of Broadband Development,
In 2020, we have made huge strides in broadband deployment in Le Sueur County for two reasons. First, because of the successful 2019 BEVCOMM (Eckles Telephone Company) Le Sueur County award and completed project and because we were able to spend about $547,000 of our CARES Act budget on broadband infrastructure fiber built around prior and current border to border applications completed by December 1, 2020.
However, there are still many miles to complete fiber installation in the county. That is one reason why we met with and helped plan for two applications in the 2020 Border to Border grant round for BEVCOMM and Metronet. Completion of these two projects would get additional reliable service to more of the county. It is critical for our work. We are looking ahead to 2021 planning to continue our partnerships.
That is why we are asking you today to please not penalize these two applications because of the preliminary results of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction awards announced Dec. 7, 2020.
Because of the auction, LTD Broadband was awarded significant territory in our county and those locations are partially covered by the 2020 applications to the Border to Border program. Eliminating those partial areas would invalidate our planning process and carefully configured budgets. The projects would no longer be viable.
We feel that for the future of our county and its citizens, fair evaluation of these grant applications by the state must be preserved. It is our concern that LTD Broadband may not be able to fulfill the FCC’s phase 2 verification and with a denial from the state, we would then be put even further behind in the process.
It cannot be overstated how important broadband service had become prior to the pandemic but since, our county government, businesses, schools and students would not have been able to function. Please help us continue our work and the work of the volunteers serving the county to bring broadband door-to-door.
We appreciate your work and the Border to Border Grant program. Thank you for supporting rural Minnesota,
Today the Minnesota Broadband Coalition met. They spoke about what’s been happening with the Legislature (no broadband funding, but exposure) and what they are working on for next year. Top priorities are to get funding for the grants (in base budget) and funding for the Office of Broadband Development.
There was a big discussion on the impact of RDOF on broadband grant applications in the hopper now. The problem is that the Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is assessing grant applications now and RDOF funding was just awarded in areas that were also included in MN grant applications. A secondary problem, is that many people are skeptical that the big winner in Minnesota (LTD Broadband) will meet the needs of the communities they propose to serve. The OBD was unable to talk about the impact of the RDOF funding but they did say that they invited applicants to remove LTD RDOF areas from their current applications.
As predicted last week by a MN Broadband Task Force member, providers being forced to look at whether they will enter a market, now slated for LTD development.
A Coalition member mentioned a potential loop hole inherent in the RDOF process. Specifically, RDOF grants have been announced but not awarded. Grants are announced based on an applicant’s short form applications; Grants will be awarded based on whether their long forms are accepted.
The Office of Broadband Develop seems to have two choices – act as if they funds have been awarded or move forward as if they haven’t. Large swaths of unserved areas in Minnesota are in LTD proposed coverage areas. (Note blue areas in map at left below – and compare that to the map on the right, which show unserved areas in pink and served areas in green).
Map of proposed LTD areas
2020 broadband map
The RODF grants for LTD span 10 years, which means there’s the potential to put many communities in a waiting room unless/until they get coverage from LTD. But right now there’s an opportunity to help the communities who have potentially winning Minnesota grant applications.
Based on input from members, the Coalition is going to ask the OBD to move forward with grants without regard to RDOF.
Here are more complete notes on the meeting: Continue reading