Alabama's Approved BEAD Plan Excludes RDOF Waiver

The state had considered asking for a waiver to open up RDOF areas to BEAD funds.

Alabama's Approved BEAD Plan Excludes RDOF Waiver
Photo of Birmingham, Alabama by Nicolas Henderson

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2024 – The Commerce Department approved Alabama’s plan for accepting challenges to government broadband data – but without a waiver request the state had proposed in a draft of the document.

In a draft plan the Alabama broadband office put up for public comment in November, the state proposed allowing areas set to be served by a Federal Communications Commission subsidy to also be eligible for infrastructure funded by Commerce’s $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.

That would have been a departure from the default BEAD rules, which prevent states from funding projects in areas that already have “enforceable commitments” for adequate broadband infrastructure: existing agreements under federal or state grant programs requiring providers to build out.

But Alabama’s broadband office wrote in a proposed waiver request that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s longer deployment timeline – six to eight years to BEAD’s four – and history of participant defaults make the program too risky to be a reliable alternative for the almost 150,000 Alabama homes and businesses set to be served by the program.

“Without a waiver, communities with commitments for RDOF broadband funding, and eliminated from BEAD funding consideration as a result, may suddenly find themselves with no possibility of broadband funding or improved broadband access at any time in the near future,” wrote Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

The state did not attach the waiver request to the final version of the draft plan it submitted to Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration in December. That document, which was given the green light in February, says that public commenters had mixed feelings about the waiver, with some supporting it and others opposing it on the grounds that it was “premature, overly broad, or contrary to BEAD NOFO requirements.”

“After considering the comments received and further NTIA guidance, ADECA has removed the proposed RDOF-related waiver from Initial Proposal Volume 1,” the state wrote. “However, ADECA reserves the right to revisit the RDOF-related waiver in the future on a project-specific basis, if evidence indicates that an RDOF recipient will fail to meet its broadband deployment obligations in Alabama.”

Neither ADECA nor the NTIA responded to requests for comment.

Since providers bid in 2020 to serve areas in the RDOF reverse auction, more about a third of the $9.2 billion awarded under the program has gone into default. Much of that was due to winning bidders’ plans not holding up to more intense FCC scrutiny, but some winners are still concerned about meeting their obligations as construction costs have ballooned.

A coalition of RDOF winners backed a proposal for the agency to open an amnesty period during which participants can relinquish service areas with less severe penalties, an effort to open those areas up to BEAD as states go about determining their eligibility maps in the coming months. Reply comments on that proceeding are due tomorrow, April 9.

The NTIA does have the ability to waive the enforceable commitments rule if a state can show it is “necessary to achieve the goals of the program” – expanding broadband access and adoption – according to the BEAD notice of funding opportunity.

Florida also proposed a waiver for RDOF areas in the public draft of its BEAD plan. That document has not yet been approved by the NTIA.

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