The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a tranche of $791.6 million in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) support, handing fixed wireless operators Starry and Nextlink a long-awaited payday. The green light comes after the regulator denied over $2.1 billion worth of RDOF funding for fixed wireless provider LTD Broadband and satellite provider Starlink earlier this month.
Nextlink scored approval for all $429.1 million worth of its winning bids. That money is set to help it connect more than 200,000 locations across 11 states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming. It originally also won just over $75,500 to serve 265 locations in New Mexico, but withdrew from that commitment last year. Its remaining obligations will be met with a combination of fiber and fixed wireless technology.
Meanwhile, Starry had winning bids approved in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It originally won $268.9 million to cover over 108,000 locations across nine states. The FCC also authorized bids for GeoLinks, GigaBeam Networks, Safelink Internet and Shentel.
Both Nextlink and Starry were among the top ten bidders in the RDOF auction and were among the last in that group to have funding approved. Resound Networks, which won $310.7 million to cover more than 219,000 locations, is still waiting. The FCC has around $1 billion worth of winning bids left to process.
Bill Baker, Nextlink’s CEO, told Fierce via email that the operator has spent 2022 thus far “working extensively” on engineering plans for a handful of initial fiber projects spread across its award states while it waited for its funding to be approved. “In total, we have well over 1k miles of fiber projects that will wrap up engineering and go to permitting as soon as possible,” he said.
The RDOF auction ended in December 2020. Winning bidders must meet a number of buildout milestones, offering commercial service to 40% of their award locations by the end of the third calendar year following funding authorization and an additional 20% of locations each year thereafter until completion.
Asked about whether the delay in its funding authorization would impact its build, Baker said “While I certainly would have loved a few extra months of build time towards the milestones, our entire RDOF strategy was based on building in and around our existing service areas and/or our prospective CAF builds where we brought extensive operating synergies. So ultimately, I don’t think a couple months of extra build time will matter much.”
In a statement hailing the FCC's approval, Starry CEO Chet Kanojia said “We’re grateful for the opportunity to serve more Americans with the essential broadband they need. We thank Chairwoman Rosenworcel and the staff at the FCC for their thorough review of our application."
Questions about whether the FCC would approve Nextlink and Starry’s bids sprang up after the Commission denied support for both LTD Broadband and Starlink earlier this month. But any fears appear to have been misplaced.
“We are confident these projects can bring quality service to currently unserved areas,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.
This story has been updated with a statement from Starry.