Two senators have sent a letter to FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel questioning why the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) long-form application review process is taking so long and asking for details about why and how much longer it’s going to take.
“Months have passed since winners submitted their long-form applications, and the agency has remained almost entirely silent about the status of its review and plans to authorize money to winning bidders,” said Senator Roger Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and John Thune, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband.
The RDOF auction tentatively awarded $9.2 billion to over 300 bidders to deploy broadband to unserved rural areas. It was a reverse auction designed to award funding for an area to the company that committed to deploying service at the lowest level of support, with a weighting system favoring bids to deploy faster, lower-latency service.
The auction process has come under attack from multiple parties who argue that the bidders should have been more closely vetted before they were allowed to participate. Questions have arisen about some companies’ financial ability to complete the projects to which they committed. Some technologies that winning bidders plan to use, notably gigabit fixed wireless and low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite, also have come under attack.
Multiple parties have asked the FCC to thoroughly vet the long-form applications, and in their letter, Wicker and Thune said they “recognize the complexity of this process.”
They added, though, that “the FCC’s prolonged evaluation of long-form applications must become more transparent and efficient. Each day that the commission spends vetting long-form applications is another day that unserved Americans go without the high-speed broadband that is essential to everyday life.”
RDOF Application Review
The senators pose seven questions in their letter, asking Rosenworcel for answers by July 29.
- How many long-form applications have been reviewed by the FCC? How many have been approved and denied? If any have been denied, please describe why.
- How many FCC staff are participating in the long-form application review process?
- Does the FCC plan to review all long-form applications before authorizing any funding? If yes, please explain why.
- Are there any rules preventing the commission from authorizing funds on a rolling basis? If yes, please describe those rules. If no, please explain why funding hasn’t been released to those winners whose applications did not present cause for further investigation.
- What measures is the FCC taking to ensure transparency and accountability in its long-form application review? Please include the factors and metrics the agency is considering in reviewing long-form applications.
- When do you estimate the FCC will complete its review of all long-form applications and begin authorizing support?
- Will you commit to providing monthly updates to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the status of the FCC’s review of the long-form applications?
The Wicker and Thune letter comes several weeks after one former FCC official noted that the commission has no binding deadline for completing the long-form RDOF application review process and speculated that the commission might simply sit on controversial applications because doing so would eliminate the possibility of the bidder appealing the decision.
If the FCC should reject some of the larger winning bids, that raises the question of what to do with the associated funding and territories. Potentially the funding could roll over into the Phase II RDOF auction, but that may not happen for over a year, as the commission is awaiting better broadband availability data. Another suggestion would be to conduct a follow-on Phase I auction to award funding for areas where original winning bidders are subsequently rejected.