By Joe Curtis / [email protected]
Conexon Connect will build a fiber network bringing high-speed broadband internet capabilities to rural Franklin Parish, according to Jonathan Chambers, a top executive for Conexon.
Conexon Connect was winning bidder in a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction. The Kansas City, Missouri company won 33 census blocks in the reverse auction.
RDOF uses $20.4 billion to bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack fast internet ability. RDOF divvies out funds by using two phases of reverse auctions.
“You have my word, Commissioner (Foster) Campbell has my word, the people of Franklin Parish has my word, we will build a fiber network in Franklin Parish,” said Chambers, who worked for the FCC before Conexon.
Campbell was head of FCC’s office of strategic planning in 2016. His group reformed the FCC’s funding program and brought support to unserved broadband areas and federal financial backing to build a broadband network.
U.S. Department of Treasury has classified areas like Franklin Parish as unserved or underserved (lacking fiber cable) At&T Communications Reference Frequency (ARF) that lack 25 megabits per second down or three megabits per second up by a wire land carrier. Meaning, Franklin Parish is a “high-speed internet desert.”
According to Chambers, Conexon would prefer to work with Northeast Power Cooperative (NELPCO) in the venture. NELPCO was the winning bidder of three census blocks in the reverse auction.
“We would like to work with (NELPCO), but our obligations to build a fiber network is independent whether we work with them or not,” Chambers said.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets build-out criteria in which the winning bidder is required to meet certain milestones of bringing service to the areas it won in order to continue to receive funding. Bidders have to make broadband service available to 40 percent of census blocks locations within three years, 60 percent within four years, 80 percent within five years and within 100 percent in eight years.
Conexon has worked with approximately 200 electrical co-ops in rural areas like Franklin Parish in five years.
“(For co-ops), we do business planning, help them raise capital, help them participate in different public funding events, and as we expanded started marketing for co-ops, construction of fiber and other support services,” Chambers said. “We have managed more construction of fiber than any company in the country. There is no reason for anyone to have heard of us because we are not a consumer facing organization. We work with co-ops. We are the largest of our kind. We build fiber networks in rural areas.”
When working with rural areas “there is a lot of dirt between light bulbs,” so Conexon has to build a lot of miles of fiber, Chambers said. The company averages approximately 1,000 miles a week constructing the fiber network.
But before Conexon or NELPCO can start construction of the fiber network, FCC officials require winning bidders to go through a lengthy post-auction process before awarding funds.
Winning bidders submit a series of documents and keep Eligible Telecommunication Carrier (ETC) status. Documents describe a bidders network capability, its history, its financials, its business plan, network diagrams. FCC reviews all the documents.
“They are near the end of their reviewing process with respect to us, but the FCC hasn’t released any of the funding yet,” Chambers said.
Earliest funding release would be in September or October.
Once the FCC approves a winning bidder for funding, then the winning bidder begins to receive funding on a monthly basis over the course of 10 years.
“We have an obligation to build fiber network not just provide broadband to every single home and business in the areas we won funding,” Chambers said. “If we don’t meet our obligation there are significant financial penalties. It would cost us up to $100 million in financial penalties if we fail to meet our obligations. We will build a fiber network in Franklin Parish because we are required to and because we always fulfill our obligations. We will meet our obligation no ifs, ands or buts."