Electric Co-ops Request Expedited Rural Broadband Subsidies From FCC

Earlier this month, more than 70 electric cooperatives joined consulting firm Conexon in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to speed up planned rural broadband funds in response to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In comments filed with the FCC, Conexon called upon the agency to accelerate phase one of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, planned for later this year, in order to connect rural communities and bolster local economies affected by the current crisis. Specifically, Conexon suggested that the FCC expedite RDOF applications and subsidies for providers that plan to build gigabit fiber networks, since under the current auction rules, those bidders are essentially guaranteed funding. The filed comments, available in PDF format below, included an open letter signed by dozens of electric co-op leaders who support the proposal.

While the urgency of rural connectivity has been underlined by the nationwide shutdowns intended to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the need for better rural broadband isn’t new. Conexon stated in its comments, “Whether the current health and economic crisis lasts a few months or a year, funding long-term rural fiber networks is necessary and long overdue.”

Proposed RDOF Process

Unlike those who want to postpone RDOF until the Covid-19 crisis passes or the FCC collects more accurate broadband data, Conexon opposes any further delay of the auction. “If anything, in the current economic climate, the RDOF Phase I auction should be accelerated, not delayed,” the company stated.

In its comments, Conexon proposed a couple measures the FCC could take to expedite the RDOF process for gigabit-tier bidders while allowing the rest of the auction to proceed as planned. Most importantly, the FCC could streamline the application process by combining steps in the process and require faster broadband deployment from winning bidders. Conexon also suggested that the agency could extend funding for gigabit fiber networks even if RDOF is postponed, saying, “In the event the auction is delayed beyond this year, the FCC should fund such applicants at the [auction’s] reserve price.”

Additionally, Conexon argued that the gigabit speed tier for the RDOF auction should be reserved only for technologies already proven feasible in rural areas and for providers willing to actually offer high speeds. “Satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, every means of delivering information other than by carrier pigeon, now claims Gigabit tier capability, lack of deployment or actual service notwithstanding,” Conexon said in the comments

Co-ops Commit

In an open letter filed with Conexon’s comments and addressed to President Donald Trump, congressional leaders, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, over 70 electric cooperative CEOs and general managers echoed Conexon’s call to accelerate RDOF funds for rural fiber networks and expressed their readiness to start construction. Electric co-ops from across the country joined in, including providers with long-standing fiber networks, like Midwest Energy and Communications and Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, as well as ones with newer broadband efforts, like Monroe County Electric Power Association and Forked Deer Electric Cooperative.

Importantly, the proposal would require no additional funds from the federal government. The letter explained:

We are not asking for any new funding to be appropriated by Congress, merely that the timetable for the FCC’s program be accelerated. We are not asking for special treatment, only that any company that is ready to build now be given the opportunity now, instead of waiting until next year. We are not asking for a bailout, but a partial investment in infrastructure, at amounts and in areas already determined by the FCC.

The letter noted that the expedited investment in rural connectivity would create jobs and lay the foundation for local economic development, helping their communities recover faster from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. It would also enable the co-ops to connect their members to essential services during the crisis, the co-ops argued:

The COVID-19 crisis accentuates a point we have known for some time. For our kids to have the same educational opportunity, for our young adults to find work without moving away from the community, for our elderly to receive quality health care, rural America needs fiber broadband service

Listen to Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon, discuss RDOF and the proposal on episode 402 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

View the PDF of Conexon’s comments and the co-ops’ open letter below.