WASHINGTON, January 8, 2018 – The Trump Administration plans on making increased access to broadband in rural areas a priority as it implements the recommendations of its’ Rural Prosperity Task Force, said National Economic Council Special Assistant for Technology, Telecommunications, and Cybersecurity Grace Koh on Friday.
“The White House is very excited about being able to respond, particularly to the challenge of bringing broadband to rural America,” Koh said during a background briefing with reporters to preview the President’s remarks to the American Farm Bureau.
“This is the platform on which much of [the rural report] is built, and we believe that we have to meet this challenge in order to be able to bring some of the promises and recommendations that this report highlights.”
Koh cautioned, however, that the administration’s plans will not be implanted at the pace of a “sprint,” but assured reporters that such plans would build on “work that has been ongoing for quite some time,” and would involve “a long process of figuring out how to exactly move the federal government in the right place in order to be able to get broadband to rural Americans.”
Challenge of rural broadband lies in low population densities
She noted that the main challenge in increasing rural broadband availability lies in the low population density of rural communities, as the FCC has determined that 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to quality broadband because such a low population density makes for a poor business case based on prohibitively high deployment costs. The Trump Administration has to change that, she said, and will do so with three separate “work streams.”
One of those, Koh said, will involve making use of the federal permitting process, which she noted has a larger impact on rural broadband than it does in more densely-populated areas because of the need to traverse federal lands.
“[W]e’ll seek, in particular, to make sure that those permitting processes that make sense for other utilities or infrastructure, but do not make sense for broadband, are taken out of the way and removed,” she said.
Leveraging federal assets to increase broadband deployment
The second of those streams will involve looking at all existing federal assets to see how it can be leveraged to increase rural broadband deployment.
Two examples of this, Koh suggested, would be to make existing structures, such as towers, available for c-olocation of wireless broadband equipment, and to make use of federally-owned “dark fiber” – fiber that has been laid but is not currently in use – to allow rural broadband providers “to interconnect and provide service to communities that have not had access to broadband before.”
Koh said the White House hopes to make towers and other structures under the control of the Department of the Interior available for colocation immediately to cut down on construction costs and to allow providers to deploy equipment and begin offering services more quickly.
Bringing existing funding sources for broadband adoption and deployment together
The Trump Administration will also look at existing federal funding sources for broadband adoption and deployment to determine how such sources can be coordinated and brought together so deployment can be subsidized with maximum effect.
Existing federal programs along those lines are administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and through the Universal Service Fund, which is supervised by Federal Communications Commission.
The Trump White House has made a point of reversing or ignoring recommendations and programs of previous administrations, particularly those associated with the administration of former President Barack Obama.
But Koh said that the Trump Administration would like to “execute on all of the work and the policies that have been — and the recommendations that have been developed over the past administrations at the FCC,” and hopes “to actually make a difference on this front in this administration.”
When asked whether the White House would encourage the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider rules governing the 3.8Ghz spectrum used by the Citizens Band Radio Service, a senior administration official demurred, noting that the FCC is an independent agency and that the policy of the White House is to not weigh in on open docket items.
“[S]pectrum use is going to be critical to rural broadband rollout, and we hope that there will be equitable consideration for different types of use of spectrum,” the official said.
(Photo of Grace Koh, Special Assistant to the President for Technology, Telecom, and Cyber-Security Policy at The White House.)
Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say
Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.
April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.
The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.
Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.
“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”
He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.
For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.
Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.
Partnering with anchor institutions
Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.
“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.
“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”
Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.
High cost challenges
“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.
In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.
Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”
For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.
FCC to Vote On Emergency Connectivity Fund Policies By Mid-May: Rosenworcel
The agency is expected to vote on policies for the new connectivity fund by mid-May, chairwoman says.
April 14, 2021 – Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Tuesday the agency will be voting by mid-May on policies to deliver the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has received over 9,000 interested institutions through its portal.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund is part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law in March 2021.
It’s “the nation’s largest ever broadband affordability program,” Rosenworcel said Tuesday on a virtual panel hosted by Allvanza, an advocacy group for Latinxs and underserved communities within the technology, telecommunications and innovation industries; the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC); and the Asian Pacific American Advocate group (OCA).
It’s “designed to make sure we get every household in this country connected to high-speed Internet service because this pandemic has proven like nothing before,” she added.
The FCC made a sign-up portal on its website to determine interest in the program, and over 9,000 institutions have signed up to date, Rosenworcel said, adding she hopes the policies for the EBB can address the homework gap by extending internet subsidies normally reserved for schools and libraries to households.
Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator, said minority-aimed broadband initiatives have done great work in bringing together providers and companies with minority-serving institutions.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the FCC will vote by mid-May on policies related to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. In actuality, the agency is voting on policies for the new Emergency Connectivity Fund from Biden’s new American Rescue Plan.
Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events
Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.
April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.
Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.
The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.
“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.
Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.
Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.
Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.
Broadband central to digital activities
“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.
President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”
Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.
“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”
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