As Industry Seeks Changes to RDOF Timing Amid COVID-19, Status Quo is Expected
As the coronavirus pandemic heightens the need for ubiquitous broadband access, some want the FCC to hurry release of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund money. Possible measures include moving the auction date earlier than the proposed Oct. 22, or a quick review of RDOF applications deemed shovel-ready. Some small providers are concerned they won't have enough time to review available census blocks and make prudent bids due to scheduling conflicts stemming from COVID-19. They are seeking an auction delay. Consensus indicates neither an auction delay nor accelerated timetable is likely, we found in interviews this month.
USTelecom members don't support delay, we were told. The group voiced its concerns in replies on auction procedures (see 2004130033). FCC Chairman Ajit Pai showcases the $20 billion, 10-year fund as a key to help close the digital divide. The agency declined comment this week.
There's bipartisan support to disperse the RDOF money now, said Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. One proposal would free up census blocks that received state-funded broadband support in exchange for a quicker review of shovel-ready phase I applications. "It's an administrative action the FCC could take, and it should take it," he said. He tweeted on the topic Tuesday. Presley is president of NARUC but not speaking on its behalf. Wednesday, he and two PSC colleagues wrote Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., to seek FCC RDOF acceleration (see 2004290064).
Conexon partner Jonathan Chambers wants to accelerate RDOF. He said more than 70 rural electric co-ops signed an April 10 letter telling the FCC they're prepared to start construction. "We're at a unique point," Chambers said. He wants the FCC to award funds to those prepared to submit both short- and long-form applications. "Procedurally, we could go forward next month," he said. The only step missing is the auctions procedures notice, he added. RDOF is nearly identical to previous broadband auctions, he said. His plan would spend tens of billions of dollars on rural broadband and jobs for rural communities, he said, and "leverage private funds."
United Electric Cooperative of Maryville, Missouri, bid successfully in the recent Connect America Fund phase II auction and plans to participate in RDOF as part of the Conexon bidding consortium, said United CEO Jim Bagley. He vowed United will start planning and network construction immediately if it wins RDOF bids: "We wouldn't wait for the funding to arrive." In the CAF program, "we invested millions of dollars on top of what we won," he said. "It gives you a down payment to make the loan feasible." He said broadband need in rural America was "great" before the current crisis but has ballooned since: "Any delay would hurt rural America."
The Colorado Governor's Office of Information Technology's Broadband Office asked the FCC to delay the RDOF phase I auction's opening by 180 days, in a letter posted Monday. Its rural broadband and tribal communities were "exponentially impacted" by the pandemic, CBO said. "Timelines considered reasonable pre-COVID-19 are simply unworkable as our rural communities attempt to respond to the pandemic."
Wireless ISP Association Vice President-Policy Louis Peraertz said he hasn't heard concerns among his members asking for auction delays. He's also not hearing indications from the FCC that the October auction date might be delayed. WISPA and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association asked, in a filing posted Tuesday, for an expedited inquiry into Frontier Communications claims the FCC should exclude 16,000 census blocks from phase I because it deployed 25/3 Mbps since its June form 477 filings. The groups want a speedy inquiry "so as not to delay to any extent" the auction, they said. "The Commission should not allow Frontier to take advantage of the one-sided challenge process and the relatively short amount of time to resolve challenges as an excuse to avoid inquiry."
Frontier filed challenges to the initial list of eligible census blocks "where Frontier already offers speeds of 25/3 Mbps or higher and where there is a state grant commitment to provide these speeds," emailed Ken Mason, senior vice president-regulatory affairs. He said the telco continues to invest in its network, including through public-private partnerships. The company is evaluating plans to participate in RDOF, he said.
Frontier's recent bankruptcy filing (see 2004150063) shouldn't preclude it from participating, said Tellus Ventures Associates President Steve Blum. "It's up to bankruptcy courts and managers" and not the FCC, he said. The carrier "shouldn't be cut any slack," he added. "RDOF is not a Frontier bail-out program. It's a rural broadband program, and if they can't do this, tough."
Even if challenges raised "fairly significant questions about providers' prior mapping practices, the agency appears to remain focused on moving forward on the current schedule," emailed NTCA Senior Vice President-Industry Affairs and Business Development Mike Romano. "The FCC staff is proficient in dealing with this, and I expect they will meet their deadlines," said Kelley Drye's Tom Cohen, counsel for ACA Connects. He said it could be difficult for the FCC to move up the auction date because bidders need time to examine the final list of eligible census blocks to see whether they have viable business models there. "Everybody will sharpen their pencils and do their due diligence," he said.
East Mississippi Electric Power Association is looking at participating in RDOF as a way to provide broadband, said CEO Randy Carroll. It would participate as a member of the Conexon bidding consortium, and seek more money from lenders, he said. Many potential subscribers now have internet access only through copper wire DSL or mobile service, he said: "The pandemic has amplified the need and created a sense of urgency."