Charter requests limited RDOF waiver after finding lots of inaccuracies

Charter Communications filed a waiver request on May 11 with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) related to its award in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. 

Charter, like all RDOF auction winners, promised to bring broadband to unserved areas. But the company has been auditing the census block groups (CBGs) where it was awarded funds, and it’s found that several of these areas already have broadband or will soon be receiving it.

Bidding under the name of CCO Holdings, Charter was awarded $1.22 billion in the RDOF Phase 1 auction, which concluded in December 2020. Charter won 5,366 CBGs, representing about 1 million homes and small businesses across 24 states for which it’s promised to deliver fiber broadband services.

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But now, Charter is seeking a limited waiver of its RDOF deployment obligations in Massachusetts and in small areas in Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The company says during the process to determine areas that are unserved by broadband, there were inaccuracies. And as a result, some areas included in the auction were in fact served by a broadband provider and should not have been included in the RDOF auction.

Charter says many of these inaccuracies were not its fault, but rather they derived from incomplete broadband databases, faulty broadband maps, and from varying definitions of “unserved.” In addition, some areas have become served with broadband after the RDOF funds were awarded.

For example, it said in Massachusetts the RDOF auction included numerous areas where the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) had awarded grants for broadband expansion projects prior to the auction through its “Last Mile Program.” But those grants were not identified during the RDOF process, so numerous census blocks were incorrectly identified as “wholly unserved” and included in the RDOF Phase 1 auction.

Charter and MBI agree that the best outcome would be for Charter not to use RDOF support to deploy its network in about 33 CBGs in Massachusetts, but to instead seek a waiver from the FCC to remove these areas from its RDOF obligations. 

Charter has also discovered smaller, but similar, overlaps in Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin and is asking for limited relief from its deployment obligations in these areas as well. The number of census block groups in these states is nominal – ranging from 5 to 1 CBG.

The company wants the specific CBGs to be excluded from its long-form RDOF application, without facing penalties. The funds for those CBGs would not be awarded to Charter.

The company says it expects to invest several billion dollars of its own funds — on top of its RDOF support — to bring gigabit service to unserved areas. “To achieve this goal, Charter is expanding its existing construction organization in order to focus on deployment of this new fiber optic network and expects to hire more than 2,000 employees and contractors to support the RDOF and future rural buildout initiatives,” it stated in its waiver request.

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“Identification of instances in which both RDOF and a state (or municipal, tribal or other federal) broadband program are supporting broadband deployment to the same areas is an extremely fact-intensive and time-intensive exercise,” stated Charter.