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Consumer group AARP has joined a growing number of entities that have asked the FCC to thoroughly vet the long-form applications of companies that were winning bidders in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which tentatively awarded $9.2 billion to cover some of the costs of broadband deployments in unserved rural areas. 

In a letter to the FCC, AARP also urges the commission to change certain rules for the Phase 2 RDOF auction, which is expected to occur after the FCC gathers more accurate data about census blocks in which only a portion of locations have broadband available to them. The letter also notes that AARP supports requests that have been made to allow public inspection of long-form applications. 

The Phase 1 RDOF auction was designed to award funding for census blocks that, according to FCC data, were totally lacking broadband service. Winning bidders were those who committed to providing service for the lowest level of support, with a weighting system favoring bids to provide higher-speed, lower-latency service. 

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As a result of that approach, the majority of winning bids were for the highest-speed service – 1 Gbps downstream and 500 Mbps upstream. But some entities have questioned whether fixed wireless providers will be able to deliver the gigabit speeds to which they committed, arguing that the ability of fixed wireless technology to support gigabit speeds in rural areas is unproven. 

Another concern is whether some winning bidders have the resources to complete the builds to which they have committed in the required time – and whether they can obtain the financing that will be required to supplement the RDOF support. 

AARP echoed both of those concerns in its letter

“The capital commitments necessary to make some of the more aggressive bids come to fruition demand financial and operational stability that cannot be taken for granted, especially for providers without a proven track record,” the AARP letter argues. “Ultimately, the cost to rural communities from a somewhat longer but more thorough vetting process is far less than the adverse impact they will suffer should providers fail to fulfill their RDOF commitments, whether in terms of performance, coverage or the time to complete deployment.” 

As for the Phase 2 auction, AARP said the FCC should ensure that broadband deployment standards are updated to “forward-looking speed goals and data caps, with realistic technical standards for reliability and resiliency.” The commission also should re-evaluate rules to “address Phase 1 auction mechanics that may have led to wasteful awards [for] suboptimal technology.” And the commission should “directly address cost as a barrier to broadband availability.” 

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