Commnet Wireless Looking to Transfer More RDOF Locations

The company has asked the FCC to offload a total of more than 4,000 locations to local providers.

Commnet Wireless Looking to Transfer More RDOF Locations
Photo from Ken Lund. Lewis and Clark County encompasses all 563 Montana locations Commnet is seeking to transfer.

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2024 – Commnet Wireless is looking to hand off more locations for which it won subsidy support in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.

The Federal Communications Commission’s RDOF program is making more than $6 billion net available over the next 10 years to fund rural broadband expansion. Providers competed in a 2020 reverse auction with bids to serve rural areas with the least government support.

Delaware-based Commnet recently asked the FCC for permission to transfer 3,761 RDOF homes and businesses in rural parts of Washington State, and the corresponding $215,000 in annual subsidy payments, to a local provider. 

In another June 7 filing, the company told the agency it struck a deal to hand over another 563 locations in Montana to another local provider called Montana Internet. The annual support for those is nearly $785,000.

Montana Internet serves about 6,000 subscribers in rural Montana with a mix of fiber and fixed wireless broadband. The company already has infrastructure near the RDOF locations and estimated that “upon consummation of the transactions” it will have “deployed voice and broadband service to 80 percent of the locations in the assigned census blocks,” the companies wrote in their application.

The company will “soon” be in the process of applying for certification with the state’s public service commission in order to be eligible for the transfer from Commnet.

“Since becoming authorized to receive RDOF support, Commnet realized that the Assigned Census Blocks might be served in a more expeditious and cost-effective manner by Montana Internet given its proximity to Commnet’s RDOF-supported areas, its existing operations, resources and infrastructure, and its ahead-of-schedule deployment of its own RDOF obligations,” the companies wrote, mirroring language from Commnet’s application to transfer locations in Washington.

There are “no facilities or local subscribers” of Commnet’s in the area, so the transaction would mostly involve handing over any accumulated RDOF money earmarked for the relevant locations and transferring future payments to Montana Internet. The company would also receive two CBRS spectrum licenses from SAL Spectrum, which is owned by Commnet’s parent company ATN International.

Commnet initially won a total of more than $28 million over ten years to serve about 19,000 homes and businesses through RDOF.

Other RDOF winners, including major broadband providers Charter and Altice, have simply been handing locations back to the FCC amid higher than expected costs. Program participants and advocates have been pushing the agency to allow RDOF providers to default with lighter financial penalties in an effort to get uncertain projects off the books and make homes and businesses eligible for the Commerce Department’s $42.5-billion broadband expansion program. 

States are finalizing their coverage maps for that program, and if locations are marked as RDOF commitments they will be ineligible for Commerce-funded infrastructure.

The FCC put forward last week a proposal to loosen RDOF’s financing requirements, an effort to lighten the burden on participants. The agency is currently taking comments on that measure.

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