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Strategies to Maximize the Impact of State BTOP Awards

The Business Technology Opportunity Program awards have now been made. Most states have received awards for a combination of Comprehensive Community Infrastructure, Public Computing Center and Sustainable Broadband Initiative grants.

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The Business Technology Opportunity Program awards have now been made. Most states have received awards for a combination of Comprehensive Community Infrastructure (CCI), Public Computing Center (PCC) and Sustainable Broadband Initiative (SBA) grants.

In addition, many lead state agencies received supplemental funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the continuation of data gathering and mapping, and the coordination of state broadband network development and adoption plans. There are ways in which the various work programs funded by BTOP can be coordinated to achieve maximum local benefits. Let’s explore the possibilities.

First, SBA projects, oriented to the promotion and advancement of local internet education and training for both area and vertical markets, can provide training content for PCCs and for the stimulation of demand by user groups for the broadband connectivity provided by the CCIs.

Second, local broadband networks should be used to support comprehensive and functional community, educational and economic development planning, with vertical market adoption strategies as well as historic TOP programs to maximize the number of subscribers to the CCI networks and the value of the practical broadband applications and services available over the Internet.

Third, an effort should be made by BTOP winners to document and share their experiences so that other groups throughout the state can benefit from the BTOP awards even though they were not funded by BTOP but could be funded in the future by other state and federal programs.

All states have received funding from NTIA for data gathering and mapping and to support other state initiatives and to advance the broadband promotion, deployment and adoption strategies in the state. In addition to the completion of their data-gathering and mapping efforts, states have proposed to use these supplemental NTIA funds to promote broadband and Internet use by: veterans, small businesses, county and city broadband adoption plans, healthcare, education, research, pilot projects and the ongoing administrative support for the development of the state’s broadband plan.

Promote Vertical Markets and User Groups in Area Broadband Markets
While BTOP grants have provided capital for the engineering and construction of broadband networks, the long term sustainability of the networks requires the maximum use of the networks by user groups, including stimulating the demand for network services whether voice, video or data. There are a host of potential users of broadband services in all of the areas served by BTOP networks.

These user groups include anchor institutions like local government, healthcare facilities, K-12 schools, universities and community colleges, government-assisted housing projects and Broadband Internet Service Providers that provide “last mile” connections to the ultimate residential and business consumers.

To maximize the demand for these network services, all of the intermediaries need to explain to their customers through persuasive presentations that a broadband subscription is a sensible and practical investment. The financial benefits of the BTOP grant are finite. The ultimate consumers need to determine that the practical benefits of broadband services are understood and worth paying for. Networks have to develop intermediaries and ultimate consumers in numbers and for amounts sufficient to assure the long-term financial feasibility of the network. The long term success of each network will depend upon the abilities of the networks to create and sustain local cultures of Internet use based on the successful user experience of customers.

As an example, in 2005 Connect Kentucky initiated the development of functional area broadband use by promoting local county-based broadband adoption strategies. Connect Kentucky collected broadband uses by county in nine functional areas: (1) business; (2) K-12; (3) healthcare; (4) libraries; (5) higher education; (6) community-based organizations; (7) government; (8) tourism, recreation and parks; and (9) agriculture.

Connect Kentucky then organized county broadband development teams to gather experiences from their own counties to share with other counties throughout the state so that one successful experience in one county could be adapted to other situations throughout the state.

The newly created Partnership for a Connected Illinois is also using local e-teams to promote broadband in towns, cities, counties and regions. The goal is to maximize broadband use in conceptual spreadsheet “cells,” which reflect the intersection of geographical “columns” and “rows” of users representing vertical markets and applications.

Connecting Broadband Deployment with Regional Comprehensive Planning for Community and Economic Development, Education and Building Human Capital
Historically, urban and regional planners have used the physical infrastructure of sewer, water, roads and transit intersections as supporting foundations for city or county economic development plans. Increasingly, cities and counties are using broadband investments as justification for business recruitment and retention efforts. In large part, this was the justification for the development of municipal broadband networks in the past ten years.

Large businesses require broadband connectivity to compete nationally and internationally in the 21st century economy, typically installed private, proprietary broadband for cost savings and to ensure availability of sufficient capacity. Recently, broadband is increasingly thought to be essential to the cost-effective distribution of government, health care, educational and workforce development services as well. Increasingly, small businesses and start-ups are using the Internet for supply chain management, marketing and sales to grow their businesses and to create local jobs.

Small businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, need to be online with interactive websites and an understanding of how to use social media marketing to their fullest advantage. PCCs can provide this training, access to hardware and software as well as an understanding of marketing techniques. These PCCs can be located in local libraries, schools or community media centers which also manage local ublic educational and government access channels on cable systems, connectivity that can be used for the cablecasting of outreach and education programs to stimulate broadband adoption.

Community and economic development agencies need to understand the training required by these small and home-based businesses. The training required includes the development of a business strategy and the effective use of websites and social media for marketing and the use of wireless and wireless broadband networks.

Another important contribution would be to coordinate comprehensive broadband network deployment to maximize the contributions of area small businesses to the local economy and jobs. Jobs are not created by governmental mandate or wishful thinking. They are the result of the successful start up, incubation, growth and expansion of businesses competing in an increasingly national and international broadband dominated marketplace.

The TOP program, which was the Department of Commerce/NTIA predecessor grant program to BTOP, funded 650 innovative telecom projects from 1995 to 2005 at an average grant of $750,000. These grants represented venture capital investments in telecom research and development, a substantial and well documented set of applications that should be considered by the local BTOP CCI networks as they develop local economic and community development plans.

All of the extensive TOP project proposals and performance reviews can be accessed at the TOP database at the University of Illinois and managed by Professor Kate Williams. TOP-funded projects in a variety of functional areas from workforce development, to medical and healthcare applications, to government programs, education, entrepreneurship and support for small business. The TOP files represent examples of earlier efforts to use telecom to promote the same type of local community development efforts which were the object of the Connect Kentucky county plans. While the TOP projects were developed prior to the technology and broadband developments of the last five years, they represent innovative, collaborative approaches to the typical community and economic development problems for which broadband networks can provide even more effective solutions.

An Effort Should Be Made to Fully Document the Local BTOP Demonstrations
The BTOP awards represent well thought out project proposals that succeeded in the rigorous national competition. However, the many excellent proposals that failed to receive funding in BTOP Rounds 1 and 2 should be considered for local implementation by local public/private investments by foundations and government programs and private sector investments

Similar to the “unbundled network elements” that were much discussed – but not resolved – in the Illinois Commerce Consideration of the SBC/Ameritech merger in 1998 and 1999, there are many individual initiatives in the implementation of each CCI grant that can be shared with other CCI networks in the state. The experience in complying with Environmental Impact Statements is one example. Others include engineering and construction work, market research, marketing and sales, operations and financial modeling and reporting. The objective would be to “unbundle” proposals to consider their constituent parts that might be of interest and value to others.

The PCC projects can share experiences related to education and training curricula, the effective use of supplemental equipment like Internet-connected white boards, thin clients and cloud computing, initial needs assessments and evaluation procedures and forms. The impact of SBA programs can also be maximized by sharing experiences and results related effectiveness of education training efforts in vertical markets like senior citizens, people with disabilities, skills and job search for low income families, kids not learning at grade level, non-profits and small, start-up businesses

The experiences of SBA programs can be collected from the state and around the country, assessed and disseminated to other parts of the state to vertical markets and user groups with similar interests and needs through the use of online web sites and cable access channels. When completing a successful computer and online training effort, the goal should be to consider how these experiences could be helpful to others.

States Should Facilitate Information Sharing and Replication Efforts
The BTOP Team and the BTOP winners should share with one another through the BTOP databases and website. This process can begin at the two-day workshop for Round 2 BTOP winners in Washington on Nov. 9-10. States should be using a portion of their supplemental NTIA funding to perform similar, but more granular, efforts to collect, analyze and disseminate through websites, webinars and webcasts the BTOP experiences in the individual states. The state recipients of BTOP funds should also promote and support the sharing of information among awardees and other organizations in the state that make up the state broadband network. The goals of the state should be to develop broadband marketing strategies within networks and among vertical markets and user groups that can prepare all segments of local town, city and county economies for success in the international marketplace.

The positioning of local economies for success in the 21st century international marketplace – as well as the short term emphasis on jobs – was one of the two principles that were foremost in the creation of the federal stimulus programs. The goal of BTOP was not simply to fund worthy projects. It was to integrate the use of broadband into the basic fabric of our local communities and economies so that America is best prepared to compete internationally for the rest of the 21st Century.

Don S. Samuelson can be reached at DSSA310@aol.com.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Garland McCoy: How Your State Can Defend Its Broadband Maps for Maximum Funds

Crowdsourced and bulk data are subject to a challenge process that has successfully eliminated crowdsourced data in the past.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Garland McCoy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of PAgCASA

On September 15, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Data Task Force issued a public notice on “Specifications for Bulk Fixed Availability Challenge and Crowdsource Data.”

The notice provided guidance for filing bulk challenges, and bulk crowdsource data, to fixed broadband availability data that will be published later this year by the FCC as part of its new Broadband Data Collection. According to the notice, “individuals and entities, including consumers, state, local, and Tribal governmental entities, and service providers,” can submit challenges to the BDC fixed broadband availability data for single locations, as well as “bulk” challenges with respect to multiple locations.

Historically, Internet Service Providers have effectively used the FCC’s challenge process to disqualify the vast majority of disputes brought forward by states, counties, and other complainants regarding FCC’s broadband maps. And frankly, this will be the case again unless states take a new tack to validate their own data in such a way that will stand up to ISP challenges. Given the enormity of the federal broadband funds available to states this time around, the stakes could not be higher; that is, a single state could forgo hundreds of millions of dollars of federal broadband funds due to insufficient preparation to challenge-proof its data.

Here are two observations to start:  1) The ISPs are correct in challenging the data if the data is corrupted or incapable of being validated, and therefore should be disqualified. 2) the FCC and the ISPs must now be seen as embracing the new “crowdsourcing” challenge process since the Broadband Data Act of 2020 was very specific in requiring that the FCC’s new data gathering methodology include third-party crowdsourced data. That said, third-party “crowdsourced” and “bulk” data are subject to the same challenge process that has successfully eliminated individual and crowdsourced data in the past.

Three ways ISPs successfully challenge and disqualify third-party data

Alone, or in combination, the following three scenarios have succeeded year after year in ensuring that third-party data, crowdsourced or otherwise, has not made it past the challenge process and onto the FCC’s approved maps.

  • Was the speed test launched from a device wirelessly? Modern modems set up a Wireless Area Network around the premises over the one or two Wi-Fi channels allocated. Almost all devices are now connected wirelessly to the modem. A wireless launch of a speed test, e.g., from your laptop or smart phone, therefore affects/corrupts the network speed test and disqualifies the data.
  • Was the on-premises modem “still” when the speed test was taken? By “still” the ISP is referring to the modem’s management of data coming from any device remotely or over cable, ethernet connection, during the time of the test. For example, if a family member is working on their laptop, e.g., doing homework, the modem’s management of the data from the laptop will affect a speed test taken during that time. This will disqualify the speed test data.
  • Was the crowdsourced and or bulk data drawn exclusively from the ISP’s premium service customers? The FCC stipulates that the speed testing data must be drawn from an ISP’s customers who have purchased the service provider’s best available service package. A customer might not need or be able to afford FCC’s “broadband” minimum service of 25/3 mbps, and thus would purchase a less expensive, slower service package offered by the ISP. For purposes of accurate speed testing, the ISP should not be penalized for offering true broadband-speed service that is passed over by a customer seeking a cheaper service.

PAgCASA, the Precision Ag Connectivity & Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance, is a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to ensure broadband map accuracy, connectivity, and rural prosperity, stands ready to help states get their full share of federal broadband funds and successfully defend against challenges.

PAgCASA’s on-premises, cybersecure, network monitoring methodology – which deploys the same network monitoring devices the major ISPs use, on wired/ethernet-connected customer modems, from a volunteer pool of an ISP’s premium service customers selected using standardized random sampling methods – will, in fact, address all the challenge issues above and generate data ready for potential litigation.

As noted in another recent article on Broadband Breakfast, states like Georgia and North Carolina are finding significantly fewer served locations based on their latest state broadband data compared to FCC’s most recent Form 477 data. We expect to see similar differences across the country as states and the FCC bring forward their latest respective data.

Consider this: a ten percent delta between the FCC and state maps translates into a staggering $4 billion based on an overall federal broadband infrastructure spend of $40 billion – needed funds that will not make their way to genuinely unserved or underserved communities across the country.

Our nation can and must do better.

Garland T. McCoy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Precision Ag Connectivity and Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance, is a long-time non-profit veteran in the fields of technology and telecommunication policy having served as Founder and CEO of the Technology Education Institute & Technology Policy Institute.  Garland was recently an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s iSchool, teaching information policy and decision making. He can be reached at garland.mccoy@pagcasa.org 

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Paul Atkinson: Why Fiber Trumps Satellite When Bridging the Digital Divide

On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Paul Atkinson, CEO of Optical Networks of STL

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is 18 miles across at its widest point. The only thing wider is the digital divide between the state’s rural and urban areas. Roughly 99% of urban Arizonans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband services that deliver at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 3 Mbps up, according to the FCC’s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report . Only 66% of its rural residents do.

Arizona isn’t an anomaly, either. Nearly 99% of all urban Americans have access to broadband versus 82.7% of rural residents.

This problem also is a business opportunity, which is why so many vendors and service providers are positioning their technology of choice as the best way to bridge the digital divide. The main contenders are satellite, fiber, Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access that uses 5G cellular. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

For example, 5G FWA requires building hundreds of thousands of base stations in remote areas that might be home to only a handful of homes and businesses — a buildout that likely would take years and tens of billions of dollars. That’s a difficult investment to recoup and make profitable.

That’s simply not a viable business model, as a US Cellular white paper acknowledged: “ Our economics require approximately 500 subscribers to build a new tower, and we can’t assume that everyone will adopt the service. The cost of building and maintaining a tower in rural America can be nearly twice as expensive as building a tower in an urban area.”

Satellite and fiber have emerged as the top two contenders. On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide because it doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of base stations. But satellite has its share of technological and business limitations, too — to the point that in August, the FCC rejected SpaceX’s application for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies.

FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel questioned whether it was affordable to ‘subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements, especially when consumer would have to purchase a $600 dish.

Rural America’s high-fiber diet

The FCC’s rejection of SpaceX/Starlink is not a setback in bridging the rural-urban digital divide. It’s actually a milestone toward parity because it ensures that an unproven technology doesn’t divert scarce public subsidies from a proven one.

As Gary Bolton, Fiber Broadband Association president and CEO rightly stated, this is a huge victory for 640,000 families who were relegated to Low Earth Orbit Satellite service. They could have been redlined from being eligible for fiber broadband. There is now clarity and a path forward for fiber to bridge the digital divide.

Fiber has already proven its worth in rural America, where it has 23% of the broadband market and the highest customer satisfaction of all internet-access technologies, according to a 2021 Pivot Group study . By comparison, fixed wireless and satellite have only 10% and 6% penetration, respectively. Cable has the largest share of the rural market, but many customers find it lacking: One third say they want faster speeds.

In fact, broadband speed is a decisive factor when people are deciding where to relocate. According to the 2022 RVA Market Research & Consulting study “A Detailed Review: The Status of U.S. Broadband and The Impact of Fiber Broadband,” 47% of the people who moved to a rural area in the past year chose one where fiber-to-the-home service is available. That preference highlights how rural communities can use fiber to attract retirees, young professionals, families, entrepreneurs and other demographics looking to escape to the beautiful countryside.

Fiber’s 23% share of the rural broadband market also busts the myth that as a wired technology, it takes too much time and money to deploy in sparsely populated areas, including those with challenging terrain such as mountains. Another wired technology — electricity — overcame those challenges 86 years ago with passage of the Rural Electrification Act , which funded utility cooperatives that built out transmission and distribution networks to serve farms, ranches, small towns and other rural places.

Today, more than 250 of those co-ops have built or are planning broadband networks, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association . Many have been in service for the better part of a decade — or longer. For example, in 2006, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC launched FTTH in Georgia. In 2019, it deployed a 7,000-foot line up a mountain, using drones to overcome challenges such as deep gorge and 100-foot-tall pine trees. In 2016, Elevate Fiber, a division of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, launched gigabit FTTH in two Colorado counties by overlaying fiber on its 4,000 miles of distribution lines.

Co-ops are just one example of how fiber isn’t just poised to bridge the rural-urban digital divide. It already is. That’s great news for rural Americans, who don’t have to wait on unproven, pie-in-the-sky technologies such as satellite.

Paul Atkinson is Chief Executive Officer of Optical Networks for STL. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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5G

Johnny Kampis: Wireless Survey Shows 5G’s Role in Closing Digital Divide

5G has experienced a quantum leap in growth since it first began rolling out in 2018.

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The author of this Expert Opinion in Johnny Kampis of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance

There was universal consensus that 5G wireless technology would be a game changer for closing the digital divide. The question was whether or not private investment would be enough to deploy the needed infrastructure. A new report shows that capital expenditures from wireless providers reached a record high in 2021, as 5G saw tremendous growth and will continue to help connect households now unserved by broadband.

CTIA’s 2022 Annual Wireless Industry Survey shows that wireless providers invested $35 billion into growing and improving their networks, the fourth consecutive year of industry growth.

CTIA said this is “a powerful trend that emphasizes the societal importance of wireless connectivity and underlines the industry’s commitment to building a robust platform for innovation that connects all communities.”

5G has experienced a quantum leap in growth since it first began rolling out in 2018, as infrastructure reforms that eased deployment barriers have resulted in 5G growing twice as fast as 4G. Since the Federal Communications Commission and state legislatures worked to modernize key siting regulations that could have stymied the technology’s growth, wireless providers have added 70,000 active cell sites. There are now nearly 420,000 operational cell sites across the U.S.

As CTIA notes, “More cell sites enhance coverage, encouraging adoptions and helping to close the digital divide.”

Clearly consumers want faster mobile internet speeds as the number of connective 5G devices grew more than a whopping 500 percent this past year from 14 million to Accenture 85 million. About one-third of American now possess an active 5G device.

CTIA points out that the number of connections that require wireless technology is helping fuel the growth – everything from smart watches to medical sensors. Such data-only devices represent about 42 percent of all wireless connections.

Wireless providers have invested nearly $121 billion into their networks since the launch of 5G.

CTIA notes that in an age of incredible inflation, the wireless industry’s investment, combined with increased market competition, has led to lower prices, “providing a welcome contrast to an economy where consumers have faced priced increases for 94 percent of tracked goods and services nationwide.”

Since 2010, the cost of unlimited data plans has declined 43 percent while wireless speeds have increased 85-fold over the same period.

Investment and competition have also led to new innovations such as 5G for home broadband and 5G fixed wireless. The latter is particularly useful in connecting rural areas where it’s hard to make a business case for fiber due to the cost of the last-mile connections. CTIA notes that 5G home broadband is available in more than 40 million households, providing home connections via spectrum with high capacity and low latency rather than a wired connection.

The report also points out that 5G is helping mitigate the impacts of climate change by creating green jobs in key industries. Accenture has found that 5G-enabled use cases should delivers 20 percent of the U.S.’s emission reduction targets by 2025.

5G is clearly helping usher in a new age of connectivity in this country. CTIA’s statistics are encouraging signs that the latest wireless technology is helping make broadband access available to more Americans than ever before. The best part of this growth is that taxpayer dollars are not being spent.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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