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Beset by Large Rural Areas, Arizona Aims to Blend Broadband Data Sources

October 15 – Arizona is on the road to a state broadband policy, but officials recognize that “the opportunity for states to use ubiquitous broadband deployment as a competitive differentiator is quickly passing.” The officials are determined to go beyond market forces in their quest for broadband buildout.

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Broadband Census Arizona

By Drew Bennett, Special Correspondent, BroadbandCensus.com; and William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com

This is the 16th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States and its territories.

October 15 – “Reliable, affordable access to high-capacity telecommunications infrastructure has become as essential as water, sewer, transportation and electricity service in creating healthy and successful communities in the 21st century.”

So begins a 2007 report by the Arizona Department of Commerce, the “Arizona Broadband Initiative Framework.”

The report concludes: “the opportunity for states to use ubiquitous broadband deployment as a competitive differentiator is quickly passing.” Further, “the realization of broadband connectivity in parts of rural Arizona will not be accomplished by relying on normal market forces alone.” In sum, the report urges government officials and others to expand and enhance broadband networks in the southwestern state.

Arizona is now setting off on a path that a handful of other U.S. states are already on. Officials in the Grand Canyon State sought to learn what other states have done to expand broadband services beyond those provided by market forces.

The Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council (ATIC) is tasked with coordinating state, as well as public/private projects, to encourage wide-scale deployment and availability of broadband services.

Initiatives include telemedicine projects, grants seeking federal funds to improve broadband and employment in rural areas, improved digital infrastructure in Native American tribal lands, and efforts to establish a broadband authority that could focus state funds on filling existing gaps in broadband access.

One of the key infrastructure gaps that the state is seeking to fill arises in smaller, underserved communities in proximity to “middle-mile” fiber lines that connect larger cities.

The Arizona Broadband Connect Initiative, a project being developed by the Government Information Technology Agency (GITA) in cooperation with the state Department of Commerce, seeks to develop “off-ramps” for these communities that would be owned by the towns and managed by carriers seeking to deliver the last mile of access.

Members of ATIC estimate that 30 communities could benefit from such an approach. In order to pursue such an initiative, better and more complete information about the existing infrastructure is needed.

“We don’t think it’s enough just to know where the users are,” ATIC members have commented. “It will also be useful to policy makers to know where the middle-mile is, where the towers are, and where the rights of way are.”

GITA has undertaken a study of best practices in broadband data gathering and infrastructure mapping that looks both outward – to comparable efforts in other states –and inward: to diverse state agencies that could contribute to a full-scale broadband mapping project in Arizona.

For example, the report compared the broadband mapping approaches of Colorado, which established a statewide public service network; the forging of a “strong” executive through the establishment of a broadband authority in the Vermont Telecommunications Authority; and the creation of a “public-private partnership,” such as the approaches taken by the states of North Carolina (through its e-NC Authority) and Kentucky, through its funding of Connected Nation, Inc.

Through early results from the assessment study and a survey of officials in other states, GITA and members of ATIC have identified a number of sources that need to be part of any comprehensive data-gathering mission, including proprietary data that is commercially available for purchase, unique state resources, federal data, carrier-contributed information, and survey data focused on Arizona’s unique , geography and market.

ATIC members refer to this diversified strategy on broadband data gathering as the “blended approach” and believe that there is a great deal of information already at states’ fingertips that can contribute significantly to a more accurate picture of existing broadband infrastructure.

ATIC understands that resource constraints and restrictions on the distribution of information that is deemed proprietary or competitively-sensitive data will be just a few of the obstacles blocking the path toward accurate broadband data acquisition and information-sharing. Still,  they aim to develop creative solutions to these problems.

“Each and every data source is imperfect in its own wonderful and at times maddening ways,” says Mark Goldstein, an ATIC member and the project manager of GITA’s broadband assessment study group. “But my belief is that in the aggregate you can develop meaningful information.”

Mark also believes that “crowdsourcing” may be an important factor in this effort – “letting the public fact-check the data,” as he describes it, could help inform better policy that in turn delivers better broadband to the public.

ATIC sources summed up what would be required of the state: “in Arizona, the leadership and the will are needed…identifying key policies that have the backing of the legislature are major factors.”

Broadband Census in the States:

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States

Congress Should Give States More Authority Over Broadband Priorities, Experts Say 

Experts suggest states and municipalities should have more leeway with federal broadband funds.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott

June 30, 2021–Congress should allow the states authority over where and how to invest broadband dollars, experts said on a panel Tuesday.

The panel discussed the problem with federal agencies restricting states to only use funds for a distinct purpose, as opposed to allowing them to decide where the money can best be spent.

Federal agencies tend to focus on accessibility, affordability, and future-proofing broadband, but states all have different immediate needs, according to the panelists hosted by America’s Communications Association (ACA) on Tuesday. The panelists were discussing the $65-billion allocated to broadband as part of the infrastructure package announced by President Joe Biden last week.

The panelists said they hope that the $65 billion will be directed in a similar way to funds from the American Rescue Plan, which grants states flexibility in spending.

ACA projects $400 million needed for broadband

The panel also discussed recent proposals and statistics gathered by the ACA, which show that roughly 12 million households in America remain underserved, having less than the federal minimum standard of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps download. An additional 30 million are underserved for other reasons, including affordability.

The results, they say, show that closing the digital gap rests in addressing availability and adoption, and that these issues can be resolved best by deferring to localities.

The ACA report found that these issues can be address if spending was increased to $399 billion, a significantly greater amount of money than Congress is currently mulling. The lack of funds, experts said, means that there will have to be prioritization of funds to either availability or adoption.

Derek Turner, research director at media advocacy group Free Press, said this would amplify the need to let the states handle the money their given because they’ll know how to prioritize the funds.

The state of broadband…in the states

States are already being encouraged to take matters into their own hands and form partnerships with private firms to expand broadband access. Experts suggest that, to offset the expenses of building broadband in more rural areas, the government will have to step in and subsidize some of the costs.

In a recent Pew article examining the details of the American Rescue Plan Act, Kathryn de Wit of the research center pointed to the flexibility given to states to assist the federal government in bridging the digital divide. She drew attention to the fact that states have a large role to play in addressing that gap.

Meanwhile, the Texas legislature has already begun to take measures in creating an office dedicated to oversee improvements in broadband in the province. The legislature recently passed House Bill 5, which seeks to expand broadband service to certain areas and requires a state broadband plan be created. The bill is awaiting a signature from Governor Greg Abbott.

Aside from Texas, most states already have a statewide broadband plan.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Vermont House Backs $150 Million Broadband Plan Creating New State Office

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Photo by Michelle Raponi used with permission

A bill dedicating $150 million of anticipated federal funding to create a new state broadband office to coordinate and accelerate the expansion of high-speed Internet access throughout Vermont passed the State House of Representatives last week with overwhelming bipartisan support.

On March 24th, the Vermont House approved H.B. 360 by a vote of 145-1, backing the creation of the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. If the bill becomes law it would help fund and organize the deployment of broadband infrastructure between Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and their potential partners, which include electric distribution utilities, nonprofit organizations, the federal government, and private Internet Service Providers.

The bill was introduced in the state Senate last Friday, and discussed for the first time in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Enabled by a 2015 law, CUDs are local governmental bodies consisting of two or more towns joined together to build communications infrastructure. They were established to create innovative solutions to build broadband networks and provide a combination of Fiber-to-the-Home and fixed wireless Internet connectivity in their respective territories across Vermont, especially in areas where incumbent ISPs fail to provide adequate service.

Vermont’s CUDs, which have called for federal funding assistance since the onset of the pandemic, are ideally positioned to distribute funds in a way that will provide reliable and high-performance Internet access to every nook-and-cranny of the state. Vermont’s active CUDs have already constructed deep pockets of fiber.

Whether or not the CUDs will be able to reach the state’s goal of delivering universal 100/100 Megabits per second (Mbps) Internet service by 2024 now rests in the hands of Vermont’s Senate, Congress, and the Biden Administration as state and federal lawmakers wrestle with how to best expand access to broadband.

CUDs Desire State Block Grants

The U.S. government has not yet provided guidance on how states will be able to distribute the federal dollars headed their way. In this sense, amendments added to H.B. 360 before it passed Vermont’s House, increasing the bill’s appropriation from an initial $30 million to $150 million, reflect the CUDs call for federal funding and state lawmakers’ desire for the federal government to establish rules that give states flexibility to utilize the funding how they see fit.

As of yet, it appears one of the main sources of broadband infrastructure funding allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, will be awarded in the form of state block grants. States will be awarded between $100 million and $500 million in block grants for capital projects, which include building improved telecommunications networks at a time when remote work, education, and telehealth are more prevalent than ever.

Vermont’s CUDs are hoping little to no constraints are placed on how states can spend incoming federal grant money. In conversation with ILSR, Carole Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet (the operations company of Vermont’s first fully-operating CUD, ECFiber) expressed deep frustrations about the strings that were attached to CARES Act funding. Recipients of CARES Act money were required to spend the funds within months of it being distributed. Monroe lamented the fact that it forced recipients to pursue short-term solutions.

“By the time it reached the state, it was too late to do anything except a few wireless access points here or there,” said Monroe.

“We’ve all been hoping for an infrastructure bill, but I think there will be many strings attached,” she said, cognizant of her past experiences with bureaucratic contingencies on funding. If the funding comes in the form of “block grants to the state it will make it much easier to move forward” because Vermont has a strategic and well-developed plan.

CUDs Need Startup Capital, and to Consolidate

Based on a Magellan Advisors’ report commissioned by Vermont’s Department of Public Services, it is estimated that it will cost $1 billion to deploy broadband infrastructure to the estimated 254,000 locations (82 percent of Vermont) that currently lack 100/100 Mbps symmetrical service (see inline map below, or high-resolution version at the bottom of this story).

CUDs have historically had limited access to the financial capital necessary for expansion into unserved and underserved areas of the state, as previous broadband grant programs have not offered the scale to solve the problem, and traditional funding sources tend to shy away from investing in entities with limited revenue history and little collateral.

Though private investors are beginning to show interest in funding CUDs initiatives, Vermont’s CUDs see the incoming federal funding as a rare opportunity for the infusion of start-up capital initially necessary for CUDs to be financially self-sufficient.

Monroe said that in order for CUDs to be self-supporting they need enough capital for three years of audited financials, three years of positive cash flow, and three years of positive EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization). After getting CUDs to that point, they would then be able to access the municipal bond market, in which interest on money borrowed is not taxable.

While H.B. 360 will help by developing favorable taxing, financing, and regulatory mechanisms to support CUDs, Monroe suggested that it may also make sense for some of Vermont’s smaller CUDs to work together, consolidating Vermont’s nine CUDs into perhaps five or six. Some of the CUDs are very small (serving only about 10 rural towns), which may make it more difficult to gain return on investment.

Potential Partnerships

At the heart of H.B. 360 is a call for increased partnerships to deliver resilient last-mile broadband infrastructure. It will be interesting to follow Vermont’s CUDs to see what entities they end up partnering with, as each partnership is likely to be unique.

Last Friday, Consolidated Communications, a major provider of Internet service in the region, responded to a CUDs request for proposal, demonstrating that the private ISP is willing to partner with the CUDs to deliver high-speed Internet service.

According to Monroe, a large portion of ECFiber’s 6,000 current subscribers switched from Consolidated Communications, so the company quickly learned they needed to improve its service and/or partner with the CUDs to remain viable in the state.

Consolidated Communications could be a desirable partner for Vermont’s CUDs given that they already have access to many pole attachments throughout the state. This will save CUDs from spending already-limited funds on utility pole attachments and make-ready work that often leads to increased costs in the buildout of broadband networks.

Another potential partner for CUDs is Green Mountain Power (GMP), the major electric utility in Vermont, which recently reached an agreement with the Department of Public Service to cover the costs of up to $2,000 for make-ready work in each of the utility’s unserved locations. With 7,500 unserved locations in the utility’s service area, the agreement would reduce the cost of building broadband networks within their footprint by as much as $15 million. Many CUDs are working to calculate how the cost-savings agreement could significantly advance their efforts to expand broadband into unserved regions.

The electric utility’s contributions would also help bring equity to Vermont’s energy sector. Currently all Vermont electric ratepayers are contributing to the rollout of clean energy technologies, yet not all ratepayers are able to access those technologies because they do not have access to adequate broadband.

One thing is clear: Vermont state lawmakers see federal funding, guided by new state legislation, as key to creating a more equitable future and delivering universal broadband access for its citizens.

See a high-resolution map of locations served by 100/100 Mbps in Vermont here.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper with the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

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Broadband and Democratization

Stamping out Election Falsehoods Like Playing Whack-a-Mole, Says Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger

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Photo of Brad Raffensperger from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

February 5, 2021 – With election misinformation and conspiracy theories rampant in Election 2020, secretaries of state representing pivotal states swapped stories on Thursday about the howlers they faced – and what they did to try to maintain public trust in upholding election integrity.

Perhaps no one faced more pressure to act to overturn the results of his state’s presidential vote tally than Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Among the many false accusations he faced was that a Ron Raffensperger, allegedly a brother of his, works for a Chinese technology firm. While there is such a person, and that person does in fact work for the Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei, that Ron Raffensperger is not Brad Raffensperger’s brother.

At Thursday’s meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Raffensperger said again that he does not have a brother named Ron. He also expressed condolences for the real Ron Raffensperger out there.

Stamping out falsehoods is like playing a game of ‘rumor-whack-a-mole,’ said Brad Raffensperger. Once you eradicate one rumor, another just pops up. It’s as if the truth has 30,000 Twitter followers while falsehood has 80 million followers, he added.

Screenshot of the NASS webinar

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs addressed the “Sharpiegate” scandal, another fake claim concocted by Republicans. Sharpiegate was the wrong notion pushed by some that Sharpie pens distributed at polling places were handed out for voting.

But the felt-tip pen’s ink bled through the ballot, making it unreadable by a machine and thus keeping the Sharpie victim’s vote from being counted. The twist in this particular story is that only the Sharpie-marked ballots cast by Republican candidates were thrown out, somehow.

While recognizing the seriousness of this misinformation campaign, exacerbated by Eric Trump’s tweets about it, souvenir Sharpies were ordered bearing “Sharpiegate 2020” printed on them – just as a joke, said Hobbs.

Michigan had a plan in place for months on how to collect, process, and release voting results, said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. However, because its processes were so efficient, Michigan caught its critics off guard. This exposed Michigan to accusations of allegedly counting its ballots too fast in an effort to try to “fix” the election. Robocalls targeted minority majority communities, including in Detroit.

Ohio also anticipated a barrage of misinformation. As a preemptive measure, the state rolled out numerous tools and resources to inform citizens of voting processes.

Secretaries of state need to help voters build confidence knowing their voice will be heard in a fair and honest contest, and not to tear it down, said Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State. He praised Ohio’s election integrity and said it had a record low in ballot rejection, and a record high in ballot workers.

The state also tried to stop spreaders of misinformation by warning of felony charges for spreading lies.

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