Universal broadband, or high-speed, always-accessible internet for all, was already a top priority when the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was established in 2019.
Little did we know just how urgent bridging the digital divide would be. Less than a year later, when Covid shutdowns caused a sudden, unprecedented online shift, access to school, work, healthcare, and more made individual broadband connections all the more critical.
Yet, nearly one-quarter of rural Americans – 14.5 million people – don't have access to broadband. Furthermore, building the infrastructure to connect these remote locations to the web is no simple task. High costs associated with running miles of wire, cable, or fiber just to reach one customer have made rural “last mile” developments uneconomical for broadband providers. As a result, federal funding initiatives like RDOF are filling the gap by providing financial assistance for broadband build-outs.
After several setbacks due to inaccurate data resulting in bids on potentially ineligible census blocks, $9.2 billion of Phase 1 RDOF funding is now in the process of being authorized.
For winning bidders, that means the clock has already started…
Funds will be paid in monthly installments over 10 years, but in order to keep receiving RDOF funding, providers have to show they are making progress in their areas, as promised. Starting in 2025, broadband providers have to prove they are meeting yearly service milestones, providing service to 100% of bid locations within 6 years (unless a revised location count justifies a two-year extension):
If you're a broadband provider that has bid on locations and won funding, those deadlines might seem a long way off, but looming challenges could quickly eat away at your schedule. Of course, all broadband projects have their share of obstacles, but rural build-outs inherently come with a few extra speed bumps that could significantly throttle progress.
Initial coordination issues and geographic hurdles combined with strict guidelines are going to leave little room for error on RDOF-funded projects. Here’s what you’re up against:
Don’t underestimate the hours of paperwork and communication that need to happen before boots even hit the ground. Navigating utility right-of-way permitting processes is never quick or easy, but when you consider that these rural jurisdictions are likely struggling with internet connections and digital communication (the very issues you’re there to fix!), timelines could drag out even longer. Then, of course, there’s always the time required to run through the proper local, state, federal, or tribal channels to address everything from complicated easements to environmental impacts. Plus, negotiations with existing utility providers for pole access and maintenance will add another layer of complexity to your already-crunched schedule.
- Rural build-out logistics
Timelines are already going to be stretched to the max to install the miles of line needed to reach a handful of customers, and lingering supply chain issues could mean costly delays. Additionally, remote locations might mean challenging mobilizations and then limited nearby resources once on site. You may be looking at lots of additional travel time required for crews to reach nightly accommodations or get additional supplies or equipment if unexpected issues come up.
- RDOF accountability expectations
Meeting RDOF deadlines needs to be a top priority when scheduling build-outs. Dating back to the Connect America Fund (CAF), the FCC has consistently made it clear that extension waivers will not be easy to obtain. The commission expects that RDOF bidders have thought through all possible timeline challenges, created contingencies, and have bid and scheduled accordingly.
The obstacles to implementing broadband build-out in rural areas mean that deadlines are going to come up fast ‒ and the stakes are high:
If you’re unable to meet the RDOF service milestones, you risk losing funding or even paying back previously awarded funds.
And more importantly, millions of Americans are depending on you to connect them to a vital service. High-speed internet is no longer a luxury ‒ it’s a necessity.
If you’re a broadband provider who has been awarded RDOF funding or are thinking of getting in on the remaining $11.2 billion available for Phase 2, you need to be prepared for the permitting and logistical challenges standing between you and your RDOF service milestone deadlines. But complex permitting requirements? Remote locations? A number of these challenges are simply beyond your control.
So why not start your build-out with something you can control? Give yourself the best chance of meeting RDOF service milestones by using remote sensing surveys and AI data processing to acquire the maps and plans needed to get your projects off to a fast, confident start. Capture your service areas with remote sensing and let AirWorks’ AI-powered software produce the quick-turnaround deliverables you need for fast decision-making and permitting.
Geospatial data is a critical piece of RDOF build-outs, but even more important is how you use that info to creatively manage logistics and build the relationships and communication needed to run these operations efficiently.
Let AirWorks handle the technical side of turning raw data into understandable information, leaving you more time and energy to devote to the critical thinking tasks and interpersonal connections requiring your skills and attention.
It’s time to make universal broadband a reality. Let’s work together to meet RDOF deadlines and bridge the digital divide.