Windstream exec says 10% of its RDOF builds are already underway

It’s taken more than a year for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to authorize all of the nearly $523 million Windstream won in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction, but an operator executive told Fierce it hasn’t been resting on its laurels in the interim.

During the auction, Windstream won a total of $522.9 million to cover 192,567 locations across 18 states with fiber. Jeff Small, president of Windstream’s Kinetic business, said construction on about 10% of its build is already underway. The company said in a press release work is spread across 16 of the 18 states where it won support. Small added it’s working through a detailed engineering process for another 20%, which includes field surveys of planned routes.

“During that process we’ll go out and view the routes that we plan to build, find any obstructions that we need to work around and that sort of thing, and determine which method of construction that we’re going to leverage. So, it might be aerial or buried depending to what’s the right situation,” he explained. “We will leverage aerial when and where it’s appropriate, but when it’s not appropriate – and we usually make that determination based on whether or not we can get access to the poles and the make ready done on time and at a reasonable cost – if we can’t achieve those things, we will go to a direct buried approach.”

Small acknowledged Windstream did default on winning RDOF bids for 29 census blocks across 7 states, but said these contributed to only a “nominal” reduction in its total funding amount and coverage commitment.

Windstream’s initial RDOF work utilized contract construction crews. But Small noted the operator expects to wrap a previously announced hiring initiative by the end of Q2 and will use internal labor for its projects for the remainder of this year and going forward.

It expects around 20,000 of the 400,000 locations it plans to cover with fiber in 2022 will come from RDOF, with a similar number of subsidized locations set to be covered in 2023. Small said it is deploying XGS-PON technology for all of its RDOF builds.

While its RDOF projects are separate from public-private partnerships Windstream has struck in several states including Georgia and Arkansas, Small said the efforts are complementary.

“While they’re separate, they usually are near each other in vicinity because both are targeting rural communities,” he explained. “For example if I have an RDOF build that butts up next to an opportunity for a public-private partnership, I might knock off 5 miles, 6 miles of construction that would have been required to get to that rural community because of the RDOF build that I’ve already completed…they really begin to feed off of one another.” And that in turn allows Windstream to cover more ground more efficiently and at a lower cost, Small said.

Regardless of whether it has an RDOF build in a certain area, Small said Windstream is working with all the communities it serves to identify public-private partnership opportunities to speed the rollout of fiber to more locations.