WISPs are the big California winners in FCC’s broadband subsidy auction

8 December 2020 by Steve Blum
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Magic radio 685

Broadband providers won subsidies for nearly all of the eligible California homes and businesses in the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which concluded last month. But those subsidies total only a third of the theoretical dollars on offer. That’s pretty much what happened in the rest of the U.S., too.

Most of California’s winning bidders in the reverse auction were wireless Internet service providers (WISPs), and most claimed to be capable of delivering what the FCC calls “gigabit” service: 1,000 Mbps download/500 Mbps upload speeds. The stats I’ve crunched so far are below; a running spreadsheet with FCC data and my analysis, which I’ll try to keep updated, can be downloaded here.

Fifteen broadband companies will get a total of $695 million over ten years to deliver service to 365,000 homes and businesses – what the FCC calls “locations” – in California. Eight are clearly earthly WISPs, and a ninth – SpaceX – will (it says) deliver broadband via satellites in low earth orbit. Two cable companies – Charter Communications and Cox Communications – won subsidies for a relative handful of locations, and the default assumption is they’ll use standard copper coaxial cables and DOCSIS equipment to meet their obligations (although how they plan to deliver 500 Mbps upload speeds that way is sure to involve, um, entertaining explanations).

The technology proposed by the remaining four is less clear. Bankrupt Frontier Communications will be getting an average of $2,200 to deliver gigabit service to 15,000 Californian homes and businesses. Although Frontier has dabbled in radio magic, it also got fiber religion of a sort this year. It might be planning to use the money to build out fiber infrastructure. Might.

Cal-Ore is a small, rural telephone company in far northern California that delivers broadband service via fiber, wireless and legacy telco copper. Hunter Communications, bidding under the “Grain Communications Opportunity” flag, won subsidies for 1,600 locations. It’s proposed both wireless and fiber-based service in its California Advanced Services Fund grant applications.

RDOF rules allow ISPs to band together into bidding consortia, and the “RDOF USA Consortium” will get $820,000 to serve 1,600 locations. My bet is that Anza Electric Cooperative in Riverside County is the mystery winner, but I’ve lost bets before.

In total, the FCC tentatively awarded $9.2 billion in the first round of the RDOF auction. Winners still have to file paperwork that demonstrates their ability to fulfil their promises, so totals could change over the next few months. Although $16 billion was available, the purpose of this reverse auction was to pay the least amount of money for the most service. The remaining money, including $4 billion held back from this round, will presumably be offered in a second round sometime in the future.

California RDOF awards by technology
Technology Assigned Support over 10 Years Number of Locations Assigned Support/ Location % Support % Locations
Cable $2,618,078 4,163 $629 0.4% 1%
LEO $5,746,961 6,297 $913 0.8% 2%
Unknown $40,738,686 18,350 $2,220 6% 5%
Wireless $646,054,404 336,068 $1,922 93% 92%
Total $695,158,129 364,878 $1,905
California RDOF winners
Assigned Support over 10 Years Number of Locations Assigned Support/ Location Technology
Etheric Communications $248,634,963 64,463 $3,857 Wireless
LTD Broadband $187,506,060 76,856 $2,440 Wireless
California Internet, L.P. dba GeoLinks $149,035,763 92,678 $1,608 Wireless
Frontier Communications Corporation $33,379,752 14,943 $2,234 Unknown
Cal.net, Inc. $29,169,983 44,153 $661 Wireless
Consortium 2020 (two midwest WISPs) $29,131,921 52,456 $555 Wireless
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. $5,746,961 6,297 $913 Satellite (LEO)
Grain (Hunter Communications) $5,475,648 1,620 $3,380 Unknown
Cox Communications, Inc. $2,386,244 3,118 $765 Cable
Hankins Information Technology $2,171,845 3,727 $583 Wireless
LICT (Cal-Ore) $1,063,513 235 $4,526 Unknown
RDOF USA Consortium (possibly Anza Electric Co-op) $819,773 1,552 $528 Unknown
Commnet Wireless, LLC $335,485 565 $594 Wireless
CCO (Charter Communications) $231,835 1,045 $222 Cable
One Ring Networks, Inc $68,385 1,170 $58 Wireless
Total $695,158,129 364,878 $1,905
California locations awarded, by ISP and service tier
Minimum (Mbps) 25 down/ 3 up Baseline (Mbps) 50 down/ 5 up Above Baseline (Mbps) 100 down/ 20 up Gigabit (Mbps) 1,000 down/ 500 up Total
Etheric Communications 64,463 64,463
LTD Broadband 76,856 76,856
California Internet, L.P. dba GeoLinks 563 92,115 92,678
Frontier Communications Corporation 14,943 14,943
Cal.net, Inc. 2 136 44,015 44,153
Consortium 2020 (two midwest WISPs) 52,456 52,456
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. 6,297 6,297
Grain (Hunter Communications) 1,620 1,620
Cox Communications, Inc. 3,118 3,118
Hankins Information Technology 3,727 3,727
LICT (Cal-Ore) 235 235
RDOF USA Consortium (possibly Anza Electric Co-op) 1,552 1,552
Commnet Wireless, LLC 565 565
CCO (Charter Communications) 1,045 1,045
One Ring Networks, Inc 1,170 1,170
2 1,170 7,561 356,145 364,878