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Five years ago, the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) announced the creation of the Firefly Broadband initiative, a subsidiary specifically built to leverage the co-op’s existing electrical assets to deliver affordable fiber to 13 underserved Virginia counties.
Half a decade later, the coop says it has successfully completed its $150 million expansion project, deployed 3,600 miles of new fiber, passed 40,000 total homes and businesses, and directly connected 20,000 state residents–many for the first time ever–in less than 52 months.
“Central Virginia Electric Cooperative partnered with Conexon to perform a feasibility study for a fiber build across their entire service territory – 13 counties and 3600 miles,” CVEC VP of Communications Melissa Gay told ILSR. “Once the target costs, offerings and take rates were determined, we chose to race to secure supplies and labor. Finding great partners has been a tremendous help to the success of our project.”
Buoyed by numerous grants including a $28 million combination loan and grant from the USDA's ReConnect Program, Firefly now provides local residents symmetrical 100 Mbps (megabits per second) fiber for $50 a month, and symmetrical 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) service for $80 a month. There are no contracts and no data caps.
About 90 percent of households connected had no broadband access previously, according to Bruce Maurhoff, Firefly’s senior vice president and chief operating officer.
Concerns are mounting that over $2.8 billion in potential broadband grants doled out by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could be wasted, further eroding the already well-criticized program’s disjointed effort to expand broadband access across rural America.
In 2019, the Ajit Pai FCC created the $20.4 billion RDOF with an eye on shoring up affordable broadband access in traditionally unserved rural U.S. markets. The money was to be doled out via reverse auction in several phases, with winners often declared based on having the maximum impact for minimum projected cost.
During phase one of the program, the FCC stated that 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations across 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. But of the $9.2 billion in winners, over $2.8 billion has gone into default, meaning the bidder couldn’t actually deliver on promised projects.
We've tracked the RDOF awards since the auction concluded, including for the providers that defaulted on their wins.
These issues have not only imperiled RDOF program funding, but have thrown a wrench in the works of numerous additional government efforts to shore up broadband access, from the FCC’s long-criticized quest to accurately map U.S. broadband access, to the implementation of newer grant programs overseen by other agencies.
This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Senior Researcher Ry Marcattilio for a conversation about on-the-ground work in a rural county in Minnesota. After joining a listening session with local elected officials, the district representative, and the broadband action team, Christopher and Ry hop in the studio to reflect on what they heard. From grant requests that have gotten short-circuited by a local WISP with a history of acting against the public interest, to mapping woes, to resort towns frustrated by underinvestment and fragile telecommunications infrastructure, there are a lot of lessons which are applicable to rural counties facing similar problems all over the country.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
In a release today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it was voiding applications by two of the biggest Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) bidders from December 2020. This includes more than $885 million for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) provider Starlink and more than $1.3 billion for LTD Broadband, Inc.
LTD’s original winning bids are spread across 15 states, but there has been speculation brewing since late last year from industry experts as to if funds would be released at all. We’ve seen 12 releases from the FCC since late winter authorizing funds for most of the winning bidders (from the monopoly providers to consortia of rural electric cooperatives), which we’ve collected in our Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Dashboard here. Conversely, there has been relatively little conversation about why Starlink had not yet received any of its winning bids.
Skepticism about Speed, Deployment and Cost
With so much attention on how the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Act is continuing to unfold (including from us), it’s important to remember that the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is still in the process of authorizing bids from its $9.2 billion auction conducted in December of 2020. This is for two reasons: first, because areas for which winning bids are authorized will have a much harder time going after BEAD funding. And second, because after the auction closed there was an array of bids by a variety of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which looked problematic to us - either because they were for technologies that don’t represent equitable, pragmatic solutions in the long run, or because they were won by ISPs ill-prepared to scale to the level they would need to to fulfill obligations.
New Resource: RDOF Tracker
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was designed to bridge the digital divide in rural America by incenting deployment to households lacking access to basic broadband speeds, defined as 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). Phase I was operated as a reverse auction over many rounds in December of 2020, with ISPs bidding on locations throughout the country. The lowest bids won, and committed those providers to completing new connections to those addresses using RDOF support spread out over ten years.
Today we’re releasing a new resource we hope will be helpful in keeping tabs on which providers have gotten money, how much has been authorized, and in which states. The dashboard below is built on the Tableau platform, and shows the real-time results according to the latest authorization spreadsheets released by the FCC.
Over the past eighteen months, southeastern-Mississippi based Dixie Electric Power Association (Dixie EPA) has gone from presenting its initial buildout plans for a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network, all the way to connecting its 5,000th subscriber. Because of electric cooperatives like Dixie that are getting organized and prioritizing connectivity for their members, Mississippi is likely to become one of the states with the best rural connectivity within the next five years.
Founded in 1938 in Laurel, Mississippi, Dixie EPA’s present-day coverage area stretches across southeastern Mississippi in parts of Covington, Jasper, Jones, Clarke, Wayne, Perry, and Forrest counties. The cooperative provides electric service to 30,000 premises.
In September 2020, about six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dixie began pre-registering subscribers for Internet service under the cooperative’s newly-created subsidiary, DE Fastlink. Dixie was part of a collective of electric cooperatives that had just received a recent state appropriation of $65 million in CARES Act funding for rural broadband deployment. The funding was administered under the Mississippi Electric Coop Broadband Covid Grant Program by Mississippi Public Utilities. Dixie planned to match in full its own $3.3 million award, which, according to the terms of the grant, had to be spent by the end of that year.
Join Us Thursday, February 10th at 5pm ET, For RDOF: One Year Later - Episode 33 of the Connect This! Show
In this episode of the Connect This! Show, co-hosts Christopher and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) are joined by regular guests Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber) and Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting) to talk about current events in broadband.
The panel will reflect on RDOF: one year later, how demands for remote work are fueling the broadband boom, and the latest news in broadband.
Email us email@example.com with feedback and ideas for the show.
The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Reverse Auction was completed a little more than a year ago to much fanfare and spilled ink, and though we’ve seen irregular updates over the last twelve months, we thought it worth the time to round up what we know so far in an effort to see where we’re at and determine what is likely to come.
The RDOF was built to award up to $20.4 billion in grants over 10 years using competitive reverse auctions generally won by the lowest bidder. The money comes from the Universal Service Fund fees affixed to consumers’ monthly telecom bills. The previous FCC announced $9.2 billion in auction winners in December of 2020.
To date the FCC has announced five rounds of Authorized funding released, six rounds of applicants whose bids they have decided are Ready-to-Authorize, and three rounds of Default bids. In total, a little more than half of the $9.2 billion won during the auction has been handed out as of January 14th, 2022, with another $1.3 billion announced on January 28th as ready to be disbursed shortly.
It’s clear that the final picture is still taking shape, but looking at things a year later leaves us feeling a little better than we were immediately after the auction closed. To date, it appears the FCC is closely scrutinizing many of the bidders that most worried industry veterans and broadband advocates, while releasing funds for projects that will bring future-proof connectivity to hundreds of thousands of homes over the next ten years.
Moving Slowly on Problematic Awards
The biggest news so far is that of the top ten winners, seven look to have received no funds at all (see table below or high-resolution version here). That’s $4.1 billion worth of bids for almost 1.9 million locations, and includes LTD Broadband, SpaceX’s Starlink, AMG Technologies (NextLink), Frontier, Resound Networks, Starry (Connect Everyone), and CenturyLink. This is a big deal.
Known for decades as the "Sweet Onion Capital of the World," tourists are still drawn to the rural farmlands of Toombs County in east central Georgia for the annual Vidalia Onion Festival.
But in early November 2021, officials from the member-owned electric cooperative Altamaha Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), flanked by an assortment of state and local officials, gathered at the sprawling L.G. Herndon Farms to announce the cultivation of a new venture. Through its newly created subsidiary Altamaha Fiber, the 86-year-old cooperative recently started construction of a fiber-to-the-home network to serve its 14,000 members who live in Toombs County and in the six neighboring counties (Emanuel, Johnson, Laurens, Montgomery, Tattnall, and Treutlen).
A 5,000-acre spread where they grow Vidalia onions, greens, soybeans, and corn (with over 1,600 cattle and a trucking company on the property), L.G. Herndon Farms was chosen as the site to make the announcement because the farm also happened to be the first business test customer for Altamaha Fiber.
Fiber-to-this-farm will allow for precision agriculture. And, as reported by The Advance, Phil Proctor, the engineer overseeing network construction, noted an added benefit, especially in an area that prizes college football in the ACC: “The lines coming into this building would allow owner Bo Herndon to live stream the Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech football game in vivid 4k resolution.”
Beyond the Herndon farm, Georgia Public Service Commissioner Jason Shaw spoke of the far ranging benefits of broadband for the region:
Electric cooperatives illustrate the power that community-owned enterprises have to bring Internet access at scale to unconnected rural communities. Because of their work, states like Missouri (where 15 percent of all households only have access to broadband speeds slower than 100/20 Megabits per second, and only 38 percent have access to speeds of 100/100 Megabits per second or faster), will go from being among the least-connected states to one of those with the greatest connectivity in rural areas in coming years.
An infusion of federal funding shows how publicly owned infrastructure can go farther and move faster. Ralls County Electric Cooperative (RCEC) serves as example in Missouri, building on its existing broadband infrastructure to further increase connectivity in one of the most connected counties in the state.
Closing the Gap
Ralls County, located in the northeastern part of the state, is one of three statewide to provide fiber or wireless Internet access to over 90 percent of residents in its service territory. With $1.3 million in funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) now in hand, RCEC is extending broadband access outside of its electric service area.
RCEC’s initial fiber buildout began in 2010. By 2014, it was the first electric distribution cooperative in Missouri to have built fiber out to all 6,300 of its members. 70 percent of RCEC’s members currently subscribe to its fiber services. Through its wholly owned subsidiary, the cooperative offers five speed tiers. Speeds range from 50/10 Megabits per second for $50/month to 1 Gbps/15 Mbps for $100/month in select locations.
Reaching Beyond its Electric Membership Footprint