Broadband group concerned after Tombigbee outbid for RDOF aid in much of Franklin County

Franklin County Water Service Authority is charged with helping facilitate the expansion of broadband Internet service throughout rural Franklin County

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Franklin County Water Service Authority (FCWSA) officials issued a statement Friday 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.

According to the release, “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 setback for rural Franklin County. Four other bidders were successful with the majority of the census blocks won by Charter Communications (Charter, also known as Spectrum).”

Randy Schultz, Chairman of the FCWSA Board of Directors, said the group hopes when all is said and done those organizations that won the bidding on the majority of the Census blocks in Franklin County would either follow through with the commitment they have signaled or release those blocks back to Tombigbee, with whom FCWSA and Franklin Electric Cooperative had entered an agreement last summer to expand broadband Internet service to all rural customers in Franklin County.

Charter won the bulk of the blocks in bidding.

“I’ve had substantial discussions with the Alabama liaison for Charter,” Schultz said. “We’re asking them to give up what they won. Then it would go back to Steve (Foshee, director of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative and Freedom Fiber). It at least looks like it would go back to him.”

As expressed in the release, FCWSA, the group charged in Franklin County with helping facilitate the expansion of broadband Internet service in the county, is concerned that Charter or any other outside organization will not follow through on the commitment to reach every customer, also known as going the “last mile.”

“We could be positively surprised by Charter,” Schultz said. “The guy keeps telling me they’re going to do it, but when I ask about whether they will go down the road with just a couple of houses a couple of miles down, he says probably not.”

The working agreement announced last year by Franklin Electric, Tombigbee Electric and FCWSA would see that every customer of Franklin Electric Co-op would have the opportunity to receive broadband coverage, which would be handled by Tombigbee Electric. Foshee and Tombigbee already are operating on a similar agreement to expand the Freedom Fiber service to Alabama Power customers in south Franklin County, and Schultz said that work is underway.

The release last week said FCWSA’ chief concern over Charter obtaining the funding was that while Charter has operated in Franklin County for many years but hadn’t shown much interest in expanding its service until now.

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

Schultz said that while FCWSA was working on the Charter angle, he and his associates were also focusing on other avenues to secure funding to boost Tombigbee’s efforts. 

“We’re pulling really hard at state funding,” Schultz said. “We went to a meeting with politicians, mayors and Senator Tuberville’s and Rep. Aderholt’s representatives. State rules right now won’t allow state money to go to census blocks have that federal funding. We’re trying to get the state rules changed.”

Schultz said they are also hoping to get rules changed to allow CARES Act funding to be able to be used to help in broadband expansion. He said it had been done in other states and they were hoping to make it happen here.

The full text of the FCWSA authority is 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 known 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