Charter Communications said rural El Paso, Texas, is the site of its first deployment to be fueled by cash coming from the FCC's multi-billion-dollar Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction.
The initial service deployment is targeted to more than 1,230 homes and small businesses in the area, the operator said. Charter expects that additional locations in rural El Paso County and neighboring Doña Ana County will join the company's RDOF expansion in the "coming months."
Charter has set up a website, at spectrumruralexpansion.com, to help consumers and businesses check the operator's RDOF progress.
(Source: webpage screenshot, Charter Communications)
Leading off with uncapped broadband speeds of 200 Mbit/s, 400 Mbit/s or 1 Gbit/s, Charter is also using the new fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to deliver TV and voice services. Charter is also offering Spectrum Mobile, a service it has been bundling with home broadband which leans on an MVNO deal with Verizon and Charter's own Wi-Fi network.
Charter's broadband pricing in RDOF areas is consistent with other Spectrum markets in that it includes no modem fees, data caps or contracts, an official said. Charter's 200 Mbit/s service, for example, starts at $74.99 per month with no fees, caps or contracts. Charter's Advanced Home Wi-Fi service fetches an additional $5 per month. Charter will also make promotional offers available to new customers, the official added.
Charter was a big winner in Phase I of the RDOF auction, originally qualifying to receive $1.2 billion in government support for deployments spanning about 1.1 million locations in 24 states. Charter later sought a limited waiver from the FCC to trim that grand total back after discovering that, in small instances, the FCC's "challenge process" conducted prior to the Phase I auction failed to detect some areas that were already served by a broadband provider or already had locked in funding to do so. That request covered a few parts of Massachusetts, Kentucky, Missouri and Virginia.
Charter's RDOF activity fits into a broader plan to spend about $5 billion to cover more than 1 million new customer locations in the coming years. The operator has signaled its intent to hire more than 2,000 employees and contractors to support its multi-state RDOF deployment.
Charter execs have likened the operator's rural deployments – through initiatives such as RDOF or regular edge-outs to adjacent areas – as a good complement to M&A from a return on investment perspective.
Pole access issues persist
Abe Robinson, VP of construction leading Charter's Texas RDOF expansion, lauded El Paso area officials and El Paso Electric for "enabling a prompt RDOF deployment," citing rapid access to poles and infrastructure and for help navigating permitting procedures.
But even as Charter gets rolling with the RDOF project in El Paso, the operator has lamented that RDOF builds in other areas could face delays in the absence of reasonable timelines, terms and conditions for pole access.
Charter voiced those concerns in November 2021, citing a situation that arose with Warren Rural Electric Cooperative (WRECC) in Kentucky. Charter argued that WRECC's move for a new pole attachment agreement could stretch the timeline of certain RDOF-related deployments by several years.
Charter again brought up the general issue this month in a videoconference meeting with FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, telling her that the operator continues to experience "significant pole delays" as some pole owners seek to negotiate new agreements or refuse to process permits.
"We have very few options when faced with such delays, as complaints and lawsuits are adjudicated too slowly," Charter noted in a January 21 ex parte filing describing a meeting in which the operator urged the commission to help pave the way for faster access to poles.
Charter noted that the FCC was "encouraged" to press ahead on an NCTA pole petition that includes faster handling of all pole access complaints related to rural broadband buildouts through the Commission's "Accelerated Docket."
Of note, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling on January 19 that utilities may not require requesting attachers to pay the entire cost of pole replacements that are not necessitated solely by the new attacher. "This clarification is necessary to address comments submitted to the Commission indicating inconsistent utility practices with respect to the allocation of pole replacement costs," the FCC explained.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading
A version of this story first appeared on Light Reading.