Altice USA has joined a growing list of companies that have told the FCC they will not deploy high-speed broadband to areas for which they won funding in the 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. The company said it will relinquish 18 census block groups in Louisiana.

The rules of the program call for penalties for RDOF awardees that make that choice. But Altice said it “reserves and retains its rights to seek relief from any penalties, including waiver of the commission’s rules, as well as seek other relief as may be necessary.”

Altice already had deployed service in parts of the area for which it won funding. The company said in a letter to the FCC that it was making the move to ensure that remaining unserved areas would be eligible to receive funding to receive symmetrical gigabit service through federal programs such as the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

The move comes as the FCC seeks comment on whether to offer a brief amnesty period for providers that would prefer not to deploy service in areas for which they won RDOF funds. Some RDOF awardees say deployment costs have risen dramatically since the funds were won as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – although Altice did not cite that as a reason for returning the funds.

The amnesty period would enable providers to surrender RDOF funds for a short time without penalties.

Just prior to issuing the public notice saying that it would seek comment on that possibility, the FCC did indeed impose penalties on two providers that opted not to complete their RDOF bids, suggesting that the commission was not open to amnesty.

Over 30% of the $9.2 billion in RDOF funding that was tentatively awarded in the 2020 reverse auction is already in default, in large part because the FCC rejected several large bidders after the auction was completed. A large bidder that was approved, Starry, told the FCC it would not complete its RDOF deployments when the company ran into financial difficulties.

Not everyone in the broadband industry supports the amnesty idea. WTA– Advocates for Rural Broadband, for example, has said that awardees should have considered the possible impact of cost increases when they made their bids.

Thanks to Ted Hearn’s Policyband blog on substack for calling our attention to the Altice letter.

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