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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Discuss Broadband at Senate Hearing

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WASHINGTON, March 16, 2018 – Questions about how the federal government will be involved in rolling out the next-generation infrastructure for wireless, known as 5G (for 5th generation) remained after a Wednesday infrastructure hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.

“With the rise of the internet and cell phones, we face the new challenge of building infrastructure to facilitate access to these technologies for everyone,” said Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-South Dakota. “The principle is the same today as it was then: our nation must stay interconnected.”

Thune touted the “ambitious” plan unveiled by the Trump administration last month as evidence of a Republican commitment to upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, and broadband networks, but his Democratic counterpart, Ranking Member Bill Nelson, D-Florida, panned the White House’s plans to leave the lion’s share of the bill to states and public-private partnerships, noting the country can neither “cut our way to prosperity” nor “toll our way out” of a lack of commitment from the federal government.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on innovative projects

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used his opening statement to discuss the White House’s Transformative Projects Program, under which a committee chaired by the Commerce Secretary would hand out federal dollars for “bold and innovative projects…that have the potential to dramatically improve America’s infrastructure.”

“These are the types of projects that may not attract private sector investment without federal incentives, because of their unique characteristics, but they could have a substantial positive impact on states, cities, and localities,” Ross said, citing the projects “significant bang for the buck.”

Similarly, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used his opening statement to highlight the proposed Rural Infrastructure Program, which would distribute federal funds as block grants to be administered by rural governors.

Yet some Senators were skeptical of whether the Trump programs would be an improvement over attempts by the previous administration to increase rural broadband penetration.

The priorities of the Rural Utilities Service in the past

Citing several Governmental Accountability Office reports which criticized the effectiveness of the Rural Utilities Service under the Obama administration, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, asked Perdue what his department is doing “to make sure that the loans and the grants that you make will be used to bring broadband to unserved areas,” rather than overbuild areas with sufficient connectivity.

Moran called the overbuilding of already-served areas while unserved areas were ignored “one of the frustrations of the past.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt, senator, that your allegations are accurate in that regard,” said Perdue, before blaming the problem on “great grant writers” who were dipping into the same pot multiple times.

The key importance of making use of broadband mapping data

But Perdue noted that misallocation of broadband grant funds isn’t unique to the USDA, suggesting the “entire federal government” had failed to make sure broadband funds were deployed “in a strategic way.”

“You’ve got to start with good facts, you’ve got to start with accurate data,” he said, noting that both he and some Senators continue to have concerns over the Federal Communications Commission’s self-reported broadband maps.

“We’re trying again to work interagency-wise with Commerce, with the FCC, to make sure we’ve got the facts on the ground on strategically, how we need to deploy,” said Perdue.

“There’s a lot of money going out for broadband currently – how do we deploy that in the most needed areas rather than giving loans and grants to people who’ve overbilled? Our interest is in rural America – a ubiquitous system – how do we get there sooner rather than later?”

Perdue admitted that universal broadband will “not be an instantaneous thing,” but reiterated that successful universal deployment will require good facts and good data before stressing that his department takes the matter very seriously and wants to do better than past administrations have done.

Questioning whether the Trump administration is putting a rural focus on broadband

Despite the Trump administration’s stated focus on rural areas, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, remained unimpressed by the White House’s plan. He noted that the lack of federal funding could be a disaster for rural states unless the Trump administration expects them to sell off public lands to pay for new roads since, according to Tester, toll roads – another Trump administration favorite – “just won’t work.”

“I don’t understand how this plan is well thought out at all to get things build,” Tester said.

Will the Trump administration nationalize the nation’s 5G wireless network?

Another Senator with harsh words for the administration was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who pressed Ross about plans by the Trump administration to nationalize the forthcoming 5G wireless network in the name of national security.

Earlier this year a leaked document alleged that the White House was considering either having the government build and operate the 5G network itself but resell capacity to commercial telecommunications providers.

When Cruz asked Ross if there was any truth to the proposal, Ross admitted he is “aware” of it, but said no final decision had been made.

“We regard 5G as quite essential both to the commercial interests and to the national security interests of the country,” Ross said. “Everybody is focused on the utter importance of 5G and of the U.S. being a leader in it.”

While Ross stressed that the administration has no desire to see the U.S. vacate a leadership position in 5G, Cruz warned that it would be a “grave mistake” to nationalize the network, and that such a proposal would face “significant resistance” from both chambers of Congress.

(Photo of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, speaking at an interagency forum in Washington on January 17, 2018, by the USDA.)

Andrew Feinberg was the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Open Access

UTOPIA’s Projects Proceeding in California and Montana, CEO Says

Both the GSCA and Yellowstone Fiber are using UTOPIA’s techniques to provide open access broadband over fiber.

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Barbara Hayes (left) and Roger Timmerman (right) speaking at Broadband Communities Summit 2022 on May 4

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 — UTOPIA Fiber’s open access model has found success in California, Montana, and Idaho as it continues to deploy across Utah, the company’s CEO said Wednesday.

“Right now, we are working with [Golden State Connect Authority] to identify various pilot areas for the project and have started preliminary engineering work to determine the initial project area,” Roger Timmerman said at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022.

During the press conference, Timmerman also pointed to UTOPIA’s expansion into Santa Clara, Utah, and its completion of its original 11 Utah cities by the end of 2022.

Timmerman was joined by partners Barbara Hayes of the Golden State Authority and Yellowstone Fiber CEO Greg Metzger as they delivered remarks on their joint ventures. The partnership will create the largest publicly owned fiber network in the US, and as it stands now, would span 38 of California’s 58 counties.

“California may be the world’s fifth-largest economy, but our state’s connectivity is decades behind,” Hayes said. “Investing in open access fiber will be transformative for California.”

Both Metzger and Hayes emphasized that their decision to partner with UTOPIA was largely informed by the company’s track record.

“We needed to have a partner who was successful and had done it before,” Metzger said. “For Montana, this is going to be a breath of fresh air.”

Yellowstone Fiber, formerly known as Bozeman Fiber, is a not-for-profit that will replicate UTOPIA’s open access model to provide broadband to the greater Bozeman region; it will own and operate the fiber but will rely on UTOPIA for assistance on the backend.

UTOPIA’s model of open access has long been a point of interest in the telecom industry. While some claim it will be a solution to the digital divide, other assert that it has merely created a “race to the bottom” where internet service providers are constantly pushed to undercut their completion. Timmerman and others have pushed back against the “race to the bottom” assertion, claiming that providers can find ways other than price to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as superior customer service. Additionally, they point to their recent track record as evidence that critics’ concerns that they can maintain a positive cash flow are unfounded.

Though UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, now has positive revenue and has served as a model for open access projects around the country, critics still point toward its more than $300 million in outstanding debt it accrued in its early days, before Timmerman was at the helm.

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Fiber

Municipalities Generally Prefer Not to Own Broadband Builds, Conference Hears

Broadband leaders note cities prefer to partner than to own networks.

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Kenrick Gordon speaking remotely, with Deb Socia, Joshua Williams and Christopher Mitchell in person at Broadband Communities Summit

HOUSTON, May 3, 2022 – During a panel discussion Monday, broadband implementation leaders said local governments are often much more willing to help a partner organization establish a broadband network than they are to oversee construction themselves.

Speaking at Broadband Communities Magazine’s 2022 summit in Houston, Kenrick Gordon, director of the Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband, said “most local governments don’t really want to own a broadband network” and prefer to partner up and support the build.

Gordon spoke alongside Deb Socia, the CEO of the Enterprise Center, a non-profit infrastructure partner based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is known as the “gig city” for its city-owned gigabit fiber network.

When asked about what makes a bad partner organization for local governments in infrastructure projects, Socia, who formerly led internet-expansion organization Next Century Cities, said those who are not trusted by members of the community will not make effective broadband providers.

Many organizations have the potential to overpromise to community members, for example giving earlier timelines for broadband builds than is required, Socia said. Gordon added it is common that the expectation among some community members is that broadband projects can be built faster than other infrastructure.

Screenshot of Kenrick Gordon, Catharine Rice, Will Aycock, Deb Socia, Joshua Williams and Christopher Mitchell

Socia said trust can be garnered from the public by using a consistent script between all involved organizations, such as utilities and city government offices, so that questions can be answered in the same manner with accurate information.

She also outlined how Chattanooga was able to promote its broadband network on trusted and popular local radio stations, increasing familiarity with it in the community through on-air discussions.

Both Socia and Gordon, as well Catharine Rice, project director for the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, stated the importance of maintaining relationships and partnerships, with Rice emphasizing the need to frequently speak to state broadband offices as they generally are quite interested in working to be helpful and improve how they do their job.

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Fiber

Treasury Department Expects Majority of Capital Projects Funds Will Be Spent on Fiber

“We have put our thumb on the scale for fiber,” said Joseph Wender, director the Treasury Department’s broadband fund.

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Photo of Joe Wender from Broadband Communities

WASHINGTON, April 21, 2022 – The director of the Department of Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund for broadband expansion projects in response to the coronavirus pandemic said Wednesday that most dispensed funds will ultimately go towards fiber-optic broadband projects.

The Capital Projects Fund was established from the reserve of $10 billion dedicated to capital projects enabling work, education and health monitoring when President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act was passed last March.

Recently, questions have arisen surrounding whether Treasury’s 2026 deadline for ARPA funds to be disbursed provides enough time for all projects to receive their necessary federal funding.

Chip Pickering (top) and Joseph Wender

Fund director Joseph Wender spoke on how what type of technology he thinks broadband funds from the program will be directed towards, during a conversation with Chip Pickering, CEO of internet and competitive networks association INCOMPAS.

Wender stated that the Treasury is encouraging that fund broadband projects be built with fiber because it is a future-proof technology.

“We have put our thumb on the scale for fiber,” said Wender.

He also stated that working to implement broadband projects using project funds represents an opportunity for governors and state governments to score political wins.

Wender encouraged members of INCOMPAS listening to his conversation with Pickering to be engaged with their state legislatures in the disbursement of project funds and to make sure that not only the most powerful telecom companies have their interests represented by actions of the legislature.

He also confirmed that when entities apply for money from the Capital Projects Fund they do not need to specify the projects they plan to use the money for on their application, and that the Treasury is in constant communication with the Federal Communications Commission as well as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in order to coordinate data necessary to determine where funds should be disbursed.

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