Lingering concerns about whether money from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program will be used to fund overbuilds of other government-subsidized projects flared up again at this week’s BEAD Success Summit in Washington, DC. Word from the show floor indicated that concerns seemed to center on what BEAD will mean for those receiving funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. So, what do federal officials have to say about it all?
BEAD is being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which expects to announce how much each state will get from the program by June 30, 2023. Funding will be based on the number of unserved locations in each state. NTIA chief Alan Davidson has said previously that there will be some sort of screening process to avoid funding going toward overbuilding.
Asked for clarification, an NTIA spokesperson told Fierce this week that the rules for the BEAD program specify that locations may not be counted as un- or underserved if they’re “subject to an enforceable federal, state or local commitment to deploy qualifying broadband.” When it comes to RDOF specifically, locations will be considered as having an enforceable commitment if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized funding to cover them.
But there seems to be a catch or two. It appears a location can be considered unserved or underserved of the provider relies on satellite technology. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem given the FCC rejected the $885 million in winning RDOF bids from the largest satellite participant SpaceX.
It seems certain fixed wireless access (FWA) deployments could also be vulnerable. The NTIA spokesperson noted BEAD rules are “designed to ensure that there is no overlap between BEAD and RODF where the RDOF award is for qualifying reliable broadband service.”
However, BEAD rules notably do not consider unlicensed fixed wireless access services as reliable broadband. NTIA officials previously told Fierce that’s because systems using unlicensed spectrum "do not, by definition, have guaranteed access to the transmission medium they use to provide service” and thus could be vulnerable to interference.
It is not entirely clear how many RDOF locations are set to be served using unlicensed fixed wireless access. Two big RDOF winners who were planning to use FWA – LTD Broadband and Starry – either had their bids rejected by the FCC or abandoned their commitments. But the FCC authorized other winning bids from FWA providers including Nextlink Internet, Resound Networks, Gigabeam Networks and Anthem Broadband.
Asked what percentage of RDOF locations might be eligible for BEAD funding, the NTIA spokesperson told Fierce “We don’t have figures on this…[but] any overlap between the programs is minimal.”
The spokesperson added “More information will be forthcoming in guidance regarding the BEAD challenge process we intend to release in the near future.”
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) previously warned the current BEAD rules could lead to as much as $8.6 billion in waste because they would allow funding to go toward overbuilds of areas already covered by FWA. WISPA’s analysis wasn’t specific to the RDOF program, though.