The RDOF Fixed Wireless Dilemma

I’m working with a number of rural counties that are trying to come to grips with the long-term implications of RDOF awards in their counties going to ISPs that plan to deliver broadband using fixed wireless technology. Most of them are not sure what to make of the situation for a number of reasons.

First, many of these counties are pleased about the wireless RDOF winners if that means bringing a broadband solution sooner. The folks in their counties are crying out for a broadband solution. But the big worry about the RDOF award winners is that the FCC gave RDOF winners a relaxed construction obligation compared to most other grants.

An RDOF recipient has six years to build the full broadband solution – starting with the year after the award. A recipient of a 2022 RDOF award must build 40% of the network by the end of 2025, 60% of the deployment by the end of 2026, 80% of the network by the end of 2027, and 100% of the network by the end of 2028. At the end of 2028, the FCC will publish a final list of locations in the RDOF area, and the ISPs have until the end of 2030 to reach any locations that were not already covered. Counties are rightfully worried that RDOF recipients will use the full timeline, meaning some folks won’t see a solution until 2027 or 2028.

There is also a concern that the FCC has a poor history of follow-through with subsidy awards, such as the many locations that were slated to get CAF II upgrades that don’t seem to have been upgraded – with no apparent reaction or consequences from the FCC. The fear is RDOF winners will cherry-pick the easiest areas and not bother with the rest and some folks will never get served. The worst thing is that a county won’t know for sure that folks won’t be served until 2028.

Another concern I’m hearing is that, in many cases, the RDOF awards were given in counties where there is one or more local ISPs willing to build fiber with grant assistance. These might be an electric cooperative or small telco that would willingly have brought fiber to the RDOF areas. These counties feel cheated by the FCC, particularly the RDOF awards that were made by the FCC after the announcement and funding of the $42.5 billion in BEAD grants. These counties feel that the FCC snatched away a fiber solution instead of putting the RDOF awards on hold.

The concern several of them have expressed is the sustainability of fixed wireless. They understand that a fiber network is probably going to still be in place and working at the end of this century, with perhaps three or four electronics upgrades during that time. But they’ve all heard that wireless technology has a shelf life of perhaps seven years, and they worry if the RDOF winners are going to be willing and able to pay for upgrades ten or eleven times during the rest of the century.

Finally, the ISPs in these counties are dismayed at what can best be described as the checkerboard way that the RDOF was awarded. The RDOF award areas are rarely nice contiguous service areas but are scattered pockets of Census blocks. ISPs can see that it is going to be extra challenging to find other grant funding to bring a solution to other areas. In many cases, they’ll have to spend their own money to build across RDOF areas in order to create a coherent fiber network.

Finally, some counties are concerned that the RDOF winners have not reached out to them to discuss these concerns and to convey their plans for bringing the promised faster broadband. I know that many of these awards were just made this summer, but there has been sufficient time for the RDOF winners to have met with local officials to convey their plans.

To be fair, some of these same counties have a similar list of concerns if grants go to the giant ISPs instead of somebody local. The folks in most rural areas know that the current round of grant funding is probably the only chance to get the broadband solution done right, and none of them want to be the poster child as a place where the giant grants and subsidies failed.

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