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rural digital opportunity fund
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Lessons from a Rural County - Episode 544 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Senior Researcher Ry Marcattilio for a conversation about on-the-ground work in a rural county in Minnesota. After joining a listening session with local elected officials, the district representative, and the broadband action team, Christopher and Ry hop in the studio to reflect on what they heard. From grant requests that have gotten short-circuited by a local WISP with a history of acting against the public interest, to mapping woes, to resort towns frustrated by underinvestment and fragile telecommunications infrastructure, there are a lot of lessons which are applicable to rural counties facing similar problems all over the country.
This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
LTD and Starlink Booted from Rural Digital Opportunity Fund by FCC
In a release today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it was voiding applications by two of the biggest Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) bidders from December 2020. This includes more than $885 million for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) provider Starlink and more than $1.3 billion for LTD Broadband, Inc.
LTD’s original winning bids are spread across 15 states, but there has been speculation brewing since late last year from industry experts as to if funds would be released at all. We’ve seen 12 releases from the FCC since late winter authorizing funds for most of the winning bidders (from the monopoly providers to consortia of rural electric cooperatives), which we’ve collected in our Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Dashboard here. Conversely, there has been relatively little conversation about why Starlink had not yet received any of its winning bids.
Skepticism about Speed, Deployment and Cost
New Resource: Tracking Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Winners
With so much attention on how the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Act is continuing to unfold (including from us), it’s important to remember that the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is still in the process of authorizing bids from its $9.2 billion auction conducted in December of 2020. This is for two reasons: first, because areas for which winning bids are authorized will have a much harder time going after BEAD funding. And second, because after the auction closed there was an array of bids by a variety of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which looked problematic to us - either because they were for technologies that don’t represent equitable, pragmatic solutions in the long run, or because they were won by ISPs ill-prepared to scale to the level they would need to to fulfill obligations.
New Resource: RDOF Tracker
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was designed to bridge the digital divide in rural America by incenting deployment to households lacking access to basic broadband speeds, defined as 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). Phase I was operated as a reverse auction over many rounds in December of 2020, with ISPs bidding on locations throughout the country. The lowest bids won, and committed those providers to completing new connections to those addresses using RDOF support spread out over ten years.
Today we’re releasing a new resource we hope will be helpful in keeping tabs on which providers have gotten money, how much has been authorized, and in which states. The dashboard below is built on the Tableau platform, and shows the real-time results according to the latest authorization spreadsheets released by the FCC.
Dixie EPA’s Accelerated Buildout Reflects a Big Connectivity Push by Mississippi Cooperatives
Over the past eighteen months, southeastern-Mississippi based Dixie Electric Power Association (Dixie EPA) has gone from presenting its initial buildout plans for a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network, all the way to connecting its 5,000th subscriber. Because of electric cooperatives like Dixie that are getting organized and prioritizing connectivity for their members, Mississippi is likely to become one of the states with the best rural connectivity within the next five years.
Founded in 1938 in Laurel, Mississippi, Dixie EPA’s present-day coverage area stretches across southeastern Mississippi in parts of Covington, Jasper, Jones, Clarke, Wayne, Perry, and Forrest counties. The cooperative provides electric service to 30,000 premises.
In September 2020, about six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dixie began pre-registering subscribers for Internet service under the cooperative’s newly-created subsidiary, DE Fastlink. Dixie was part of a collective of electric cooperatives that had just received a recent state appropriation of $65 million in CARES Act funding for rural broadband deployment. The funding was administered under the Mississippi Electric Coop Broadband Covid Grant Program by Mississippi Public Utilities. Dixie planned to match in full its own $3.3 million award, which, according to the terms of the grant, had to be spent by the end of that year.
Join Us Thursday, February 10th at 5pm ET, For RDOF: One Year Later - Episode 33 of the Connect This! Show
In this episode of the Connect This! Show, co-hosts Christopher and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) are joined by regular guests Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber) and Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting) to talk about current events in broadband.
The panel will reflect on RDOF: one year later, how demands for remote work are fueling the broadband boom, and the latest news in broadband.
Subscribe to the show using this feed on YouTube Live or here on Facebook Live, or visit ConnectThisShow.com
Email us email@example.com with feedback and ideas for the show.
Watch here on YouTube Live, here on Facebook live, or below.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction: One Year Later
The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Reverse Auction was completed a little more than a year ago to much fanfare and spilled ink, and though we’ve seen irregular updates over the last twelve months, we thought it worth the time to round up what we know so far in an effort to see where we’re at and determine what is likely to come.
The RDOF was built to award up to $20.4 billion in grants over 10 years using competitive reverse auctions generally won by the lowest bidder. The money comes from the Universal Service Fund fees affixed to consumers’ monthly telecom bills. The previous FCC announced $9.2 billion in auction winners in December of 2020.
To date the FCC has announced five rounds of Authorized funding released, six rounds of applicants whose bids they have decided are Ready-to-Authorize, and three rounds of Default bids. In total, a little more than half of the $9.2 billion won during the auction has been handed out as of January 14th, 2022, with another $1.3 billion announced on January 28th as ready to be disbursed shortly.
It’s clear that the final picture is still taking shape, but looking at things a year later leaves us feeling a little better than we were immediately after the auction closed. To date, it appears the FCC is closely scrutinizing many of the bidders that most worried industry veterans and broadband advocates, while releasing funds for projects that will bring future-proof connectivity to hundreds of thousands of homes over the next ten years.
Moving Slowly on Problematic Awards
The biggest news so far is that of the top ten winners, seven look to have received no funds at all (see table below or high-resolution version here). That’s $4.1 billion worth of bids for almost 1.9 million locations, and includes LTD Broadband, SpaceX’s Starlink, AMG Technologies (NextLink), Frontier, Resound Networks, Starry (Connect Everyone), and CenturyLink. This is a big deal.
Altamaha EMC Brings Fiber to The Farmlands of Rural Georgia
Known for decades as the "Sweet Onion Capital of the World," tourists are still drawn to the rural farmlands of Toombs County in east central Georgia for the annual Vidalia Onion Festival.
But in early November 2021, officials from the member-owned electric cooperative Altamaha Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), flanked by an assortment of state and local officials, gathered at the sprawling L.G. Herndon Farms to announce the cultivation of a new venture. Through its newly created subsidiary Altamaha Fiber, the 86-year-old cooperative recently started construction of a fiber-to-the-home network to serve its 14,000 members who live in Toombs County and in the six neighboring counties (Emanuel, Johnson, Laurens, Montgomery, Tattnall, and Treutlen).
A 5,000-acre spread where they grow Vidalia onions, greens, soybeans, and corn (with over 1,600 cattle and a trucking company on the property), L.G. Herndon Farms was chosen as the site to make the announcement because the farm also happened to be the first business test customer for Altamaha Fiber.
Fiber-to-this-farm will allow for precision agriculture. And, as reported by The Advance, Phil Proctor, the engineer overseeing network construction, noted an added benefit, especially in an area that prizes college football in the ACC: “The lines coming into this building would allow owner Bo Herndon to live stream the Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech football game in vivid 4k resolution.”
Beyond the Herndon farm, Georgia Public Service Commissioner Jason Shaw spoke of the far ranging benefits of broadband for the region:
RDOF Funding Propels a Local Electric Cooperative to Extend Connectivity in Rural Missouri
Electric cooperatives illustrate the power that community-owned enterprises have to bring Internet access at scale to unconnected rural communities. Because of their work, states like Missouri (where 15 percent of all households only have access to broadband speeds slower than 100/20 Megabits per second, and only 38 percent have access to speeds of 100/100 Megabits per second or faster), will go from being among the least-connected states to one of those with the greatest connectivity in rural areas in coming years.
An infusion of federal funding shows how publicly owned infrastructure can go farther and move faster. Ralls County Electric Cooperative (RCEC) serves as example in Missouri, building on its existing broadband infrastructure to further increase connectivity in one of the most connected counties in the state.
Closing the Gap
Ralls County, located in the northeastern part of the state, is one of three statewide to provide fiber or wireless Internet access to over 90 percent of residents in its service territory. With $1.3 million in funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) now in hand, RCEC is extending broadband access outside of its electric service area.
RCEC’s initial fiber buildout began in 2010. By 2014, it was the first electric distribution cooperative in Missouri to have built fiber out to all 6,300 of its members. 70 percent of RCEC’s members currently subscribe to its fiber services. Through its wholly owned subsidiary, the cooperative offers five speed tiers. Speeds range from 50/10 Megabits per second for $50/month to 1 Gbps/15 Mbps for $100/month in select locations.
Reaching Beyond its Electric Membership Footprint
Mississippi Electric Utility Leases Dark Fiber to Connect Underserved Business and Homes
In an effort to connect rural communities in eastern Mississippi where the big monopoly Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have failed to deliver– Mississippi Power has agreed to lease its dark fiber to East Mississippi Connect (EMC), the telecommunications subsidiary of the East Mississippi Electric Power Association (EMEPA). The immediate goal is to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to underserved areas in Lauderdale (pop. 74,000) and Kemper (pop. 9,700) counties.
In February, EMC received $38.6 million in Rural Digital Opportunity Funds (RDOF) grants to deploy fiber-to-the-home broadband to rural residents in the eastern part of the state. EMC, approved by EMEPA members and established in October 2020, has been building out the network in phases, with the majority of Phase One – which covers parts of Lauderdale, Kemper and Clark counties – complete, or near completion. There are a total of five phases that will eventually reach into 11 counties and connect 37,000 homes and businesses.
The deal marks the first time Mississippi Power has agreed to lease its dark fiber – a move that was buoyed by a recently passed state law that allows electric utilities to “permit broadband providers use of the electric delivery system.”
EMC has two pricing and speed tiers: 100 Megabit per second symmetrical for $70/month and 1 Gigabit per second for $100/month.
“We are excited to be partnering with Mississippi Power to expand our opportunity of reaching an even greater number of rural communities with access to high-speed fiber Internet,” East Mississippi Electric Power Association Chief Executive Officer Randy Carroll said in a joint press release.
A History of Errors Catches Up with LTD Broadband in Iowa
When the FCC announced the winners of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) last December, many industry veterans were surprised by the appearance of LTD Broadband as the largest recipient of funds. The company managed to snag more than $1.3 billion to serve 528,000 locations across 15 states, but its capability to do so immediately drew skepticism from many (including us).
Now, a little less than a year later, the company's chickens are coming home to roost. In a recent ruling denying the company the expanded Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status it needs to offer service in RDOF-awarded areas, the Iowa Utilities Board took LTD to task for a history of noncompliance and late payments:
Specifically, LTD had not complied with the Board’s February 22, 2019 order, as LTD had not yet filed a registration as a telecommunications service provider, was past due on its DPRS assessment, and had not yet filed an annual report with the Board for reporting years 2019 and 2020.
[B]eyond the procedural flaws in LTD’s Application, the company’s responses to Board . . . illustrate that LTD has routinely submitted regulatory filings with obvious errors, if filings were submitted at all . . . It is for this reason that the Board takes seriously LTD’s history of inconsistent compliance with this provision, as the regulatory burden is minimal and the consequence of failing to uphold the obligation ETCs pledge to carry out impacts the rest of the industry, the Board, and most importantly, the Iowans served by the program.
But the regulatory board took its comments a step further, basing its ruling also on the fact that the company's behavior in the state betrays what looks like a lack of ability to meet its bidding commitments during the auction:
The record in this docket does not merit the expansion of a credential that signals to the public that LTD has evidenced the technical and financial capabilities required to carry out the public interest obligations of those entrusted with federal funds. LTD’s responses and actions lack the candor that the Board would expect from a carrier seeking to evidence the expertise to take on this degree of expansion.