Group voices concerns over broadband expansion after Tombigbee loses out on Franklin bid

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Franklin County Water Service Authority (FCWSA) officials issued a press release Jan. 14 voicing concerns about the impact to expansion of broadband service in Franklin County after Tombigbee Electric Cooperative/Communications failed in its bid to secure Rural Digital Opportunity Funding for large portions of Franklin County.

The statement issued by FCWSA reads as follows:

Reliable affordable high-speed internet is a critical utility for rural Franklin County, our children’s education, e-health services, work-from-home, e-commerce and our county’s growth and economic development. COVID-19 reinforced that.

As explained in our August 2020 Joint Press Release, FCWSA, along with the Franklin Electric Cooperative (FEC), worked hard to a find partner with a successful track record of providing reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service as well as having a strong loyal commitment to rural residents such as FEC members.

An arrangement was secured with Tombigbee Electric Cooperative/Communications (Tombigbee), a service provider that met those exact qualifications. In that arrangement, every FEC member would have been offered reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service. As Tombigbee was already building-out such a service in most of the southern portions of our county, these FEC members would have had service in two (2) to three (3) years.

Additionally, and because they know and understand the rural customer well, Tombigbee offered two (2) price points. An entry level price, assuring every rural resident could afford internet and, an upgrade, for those needing higher speeds.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) completed its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction and announced the winners for the Franklin County census blocks on December 7, 2020.

Tombigbee was not a successful bidder for the large majority of Franklin County census blocks eligible for funding in this auction. This was a significant disappointment and set back for rural Franklin County.

Four other bidders were successful with the majority of the census blocks won by Charter Communications (Charter, also know as Spectrum).

We congratulate Charter on its winning bids for the Franklin County census blocks and FCWSA sincerely wants to see Charter succeed in bringing reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service to all remaining Franklin County rural residents.

However, FCWSA has serious concerns about Charter’s commitment, willingness and sufficient financial resources to provide reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service to every rural resident in Franklin County within in two (2) to three (3) years.

Charter has been servicing limited portions of Franklin County for decades but not the majority of our rural county residents. Our rural customers seriously question Charter’s sudden interest in rural Franklin County when Charter could have provided service years earlier.

Additional serious concerns focus on what appears to have been predatory bidding occurring in the Franklin County census blocks. The low levels of bid funding raise critical questions about Charter’s commitment, and now ability, to deliver reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service to all remaining rural county residents.

Further, should Charter not meet its commitment within the current timeframes permitted under the FCC RDOF requirements, rural Franklin County will find itself blocked from receiving additional government funding for years, possibly keeping our rural residents from obtaining broadband service for as long as another decade. This is unacceptable.

FCWSA contacted Charter and requested a detailed plan, to include financial commitments, a timeline with milestone progress updates and a commitment to our rural residents to provide this service within in two (2) to three (3) years, as Tombigbee would have. We also requested full transparency throughout the process.

FCWSA also called on Charter to decline the FCC RDOF funding for the Franklin County census blocks if it is not committed to providing reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service within in two (2) to three (3) years to the remaining Franklin County rural residents. Such an action would then allow Franklin County to pursue other government funding to be used with service providers having a strong commitment to rural Franklin County.

FCWSA contacted and has been engaged with our congressional delegation, federal officials and state representatives and officials since the announcement of the FCC RDOF auction winners.

FCWSA will continue to aggressively pursue reliable affordable last-mile fiber optic broadband service in Franklin County.

Franklin County residents are encouraged to contact Charter about these same concerns and to encourage our federal and state officials to do so as well.

For the Franklin County Water Service Authority:

Randy Schultz, Chairman, Board of Directors, Franklin County Water Service Authority

Scott A. Mugno, Secretary/Treasurer, Board of Directors, Franklin County Water Service Authority