fccThe FCC yesterday released a revised list of areas eligible for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund RDOF auction scheduled to begin in October. The commission initially released a preliminary list of eligible areas in March, which was followed by a challenge process.

The commission received about 180 challenges and on a conference call with reporters yesterday hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission reviewed the challenges in preparing the new list.

“We’ve been working through . . . the challenges and figuring out which ones are valid and which ones are not,” said Pai, who noted that the revised list will give “would-be bidders some more certainty” about the auction opportunity.

The revised list identifies 5,392,530 unserved locations that are expected to be eligible for the auction. At the time the FCC issued the preliminary list, it did not offer an equivalent number, making it difficult to determine how many locations were deemed ineligible.

In a press release issued yesterday, however, the commission said it granted most of the challenges that showed that network operators had begun delivering voice and 25/3 Mbps or faster service since June 30, 2019, when the data was collected that underpinned the preliminary list. A census block is considered eligible if no locations in the block can get 25/3 Mbps and voice service.

The FCC’s comment suggests that the commission may have removed a large number of census blocks that were challenged by wireless internet service providers (WISPs). As Telecompetitor previously reported, an analysis by Cooperative Network Services found that WISPs made some of the biggest challenges, including some involving tens of thousands of census blocks, which the WISPs said they now serve.

Frontier Challenge Rejected
Perhaps the highest profile challenge to the preliminary RDOF eligible area list came from Frontier Communications. Frontier said that since the data was compiled, the company had deployed broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps to at least one location in each of 16,000 census blocks that were on the preliminary list.

Several carrier associations challenged Frontier’s assertion, questioning how the company could have made all those deployments at a time when it missed buildout deadlines for the Connect America Fund rural broadband program and had filed for bankruptcy.

The FCC denied Frontier’s challenge, noting in today’s press release that it was doing so in light of “numerous and significant concerns in the record regarding the validity of Frontier’s filing, including its own admission that it had misfiled its June 2019 data, errors in its challenge that it sought to revise and inconsistent explanations for its challenge.”

While this sounds like a slap on the wrist, it could be good news for Frontier — or at least that’s what the company has suggested. After challenging the initial eligible area list, Frontier said in a letter to the FCC that it had made the challenge to comply with RDOF program rules but that the company would actually like to see the challenged areas included in the auction because that would offer the company “an opportunity to obtain continued support to provide service to these high cost areas.”

To obtain that support for an area, however, Frontier would have to be the lowest bidder for that area in the RDOF auction. The auction will award funding to the network operator that commits to deploying service with the lowest level of support funding, and a Frontier executive said previously that in comparison with the CAF program, which gave incumbent price cap carriers such as Frontier the right of first refusal on cost-based funding, this plan was “less favorable” to Frontier. Bidders in the RDOF auction will not be allowed to request more funding than the price cap carriers were offered in the CAF program.

Challenges referenced in the press releases as having been rejected include those from Arrowhead Electric Cooperation, Inland Telephone Company, Northwest Fiber, Edge Broadband, Mobius Communications Company and LakeNet LLC. Those challenges would have excluded areas from the auction, the press release about the revised RDOF eligible area list explained.

The commission did, however, grant a waiver request from Charter Communications asking that 2,127 census blocks in New York be excluded because the company plans to deploy broadband in those locations in connection with a settlement reached with the state of New York.

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