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Rural Electric Cooperatives Pose an Obvious Solution for Deploying Fiber to Rural Areas, Says Former FCC Official

Heather Heimbach

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PITTSBURGH, July 31, 2018 – Rural electric cooperatives and not “small cell” deployment powered by 5G networks, may be the solution to closing the digital divide, according to Jonathan Chambers, former chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Strategic Planning.

Speaking at the regional conference hosted last week here by Next Century Cities, a broadband advocacy group for cities, Chambers suggested repurposing rural electric cooperative infrastructure for fiber networks.

“The nation was able to build electricity to every home in rural America. That was the objective starting in the 1930s, and the country was able to do so,” Chambers said. “It’s less expensive to build a fiber network than an electric network.”

Rural electric co-ops were started with a goal of universal service

A rural electric cooperative is a not-for-profit organization owned by the community that it serves. Many of these organizations started more than 80 years ago with a goal of building electric services to those rural communities that utility companies refused to serve.

Just as with broadband today, rural communities in America struggled to gain access to electricity because the low-density areas proved to be uneconomical for businesses..

“We can afford it as a nation to build fiber everywhere. We can afford it if we set the objective,” Chambers said, projecting confidence in the nation’s ability to get connected.

Chambers emphasized the importance of local and community action to solve the divide, just as it solved the electric divide with community-owned rural electric cooperatives.

“I don’t wait around for Congress, or the FCC, or the USDA either — this has to come from the community,” Chambers said.

Getting new networks in for coal country, Kentucky

Harry Collins, a teacher from Letcher County, Kentucky – a town devastated by the collapse of the coal industry – said that there is no broadband at all in the lower part of Letcher County, an area with 30 percent of the county’s population.

“It’s basically a wasteland– there is no connectivity,” Collins said. “We have people paying $85.95 for 1 Mbps (Megabit per second). That is capped in that area.” In other areas, he said, there are people paying nearly $190 for a 10 Mbps connection.

“We need to give them some sort of format to connect with the outside world,” Collins said.

Collins described harassment he experienced when trying to pilot a program to set up broadband for the lower portion of his country. According to Collins, a representative from a small cable company paid the city a visit to criticize them.

“He called us all liars, and then he called us politicians,” Collins said. He said, however, that the community backed Collins’ efforts and  “shooed ‘em out the door.”

Collins plans to move forward with his plan to build a local wireless network for the community without expecting or relying on assistance from the private sector.

“We’re not making a build-and-they-will-come project,” Collins said. “We’re building a project that’s a tool for our community.”

Criticism and praise of a wireless network in Kentucky

However, Collins’ efforts to build a wireless network in the community was met with criticism from other members of the panel, such as Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of telecommunications company GWI. Kittredge said Collins should instead be deploying fiber to prepare for the future, rather than setting up a network that would become obsolete in the next five years.

“All models now are wireless and fiber,” Kittredge said. “If you’re building a wireless network and someone tells you [that] you should not do it with fiber backhaul to the antennas, they’re probably misleading you.”

Kittredge instead advocated for laying down fiber, which he says could later be used for developing a better fiber network.  “The trick is fiber down some roads, and most roads, and then the antennas are going to be somewhere. It is incredibly painful to throw away fiber gear,” Kittredge said, emphasizing the importance of fiber networks despite the high cost of deployment.

However, Chambers and Policy Director of Next Century Cities, Christopher Mitchell, expressed support for Collins’ local effort to give access to members in his county.

“Build what you need,” Chambers said, despite advocating for repurposing prior infrastructure for fiber networks over building a wireless network. “That’s different – that I do agree with.”

“Every year that you wait, people are leaving,” Mitchell said. “We have to recognize the immediacy, because every year people are leaving, and some of them will not come back.”

Rural Utilities Service continues to have programs for building broadband

While Collins explained that he opted out of a fiber network because it would be too expensive, Richard Jenkins from the Rural Utilities Service of the Agriculture Department described federal programs for financing broadband deployment.

“We also strive to provide with our financing something where there’s nothing,” Jenkins said. According to Jenkins, for the USDA’s programs, “10/3 is the base,” referring to 10 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. “Anything below 10/3 is considered unserved as far as we’re concerned with our programs,” he said.

Chambers praised the USDA’s approach to building out infrastructure. “The USDA has invested the public’s money in the nation’s infrastructure in the past 80 years with a long-term approach,” Chambers said.

“The USDA knows that if you are going to invest the public’s money, you ought to do so in long term infrastructure, not something that’s going to move from 3G to 4G to 5G to 6G.”

Differing cost estimates for building out nationwide broadband networks

However, the cost of building out to unserved and underserved areas remains a burdensome issue.

According to research by broadband data analyst James Stegeman, from CostQuest, the cost of deploying a fiber-to-the-premises network for underserved and unserved portions of the country is over 95 billion.

Deploying a fiber-to-the-premises network to the unserved alone would cost an estimated 60 billion dollars.

Even that cost estimate may be an understatement, according to Chambers. He criticized the research for relying on the FCC’s Form 477 data. According to Chambers, the FCC data underestimates the number of underserved and unserved homes in the country. If the actual number of underserved and unserved homes were to be used in the formula, the cost could grow much higher.

Chambers advocated utilizing existing infrastructure to drastically decrease that cost of building out fiber networks.

“I believe it is economically feasible and economically necessary…to build fiber network to every home in this country,” Chambers said.

(Photograph of Jonathan Chambers in September 2015 by Drew Clark.)

 

Broadband Data

New Broadband Mapping Fabric Will Help Unify Geocoding Across the Broadband Industry, Experts Say

Tim White

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Photo of Lynn Follansbee from October 2019 by Drew Clark

March 11, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission’s new “fabric” for mapping broadband service across America will not only help collect more accurate data, but also unify geocoding across the broadband industry, industry experts said during a Federal Communications Bar Association webinar Thursday.

Broadband service providers are not geocoding experts, said Lynn Follansbee of US Telecom, and they don’t know where all the people are.

The new fabric dataset is going to be very useful to get a granular look at what is and what is not served and to harmonize geocoding, she said.

AT&T’s Mary Henze agreed. “We’re a broadband provider, we’re not a GIS company,” she said. Unified geocode across the whole field will help a lot to find missing spots in our service area, she said.

The new Digital Opportunity Data Collection fabric is a major shift from the current Form 477 data that the FCC collects, which has been notoriously inaccurate for years. The effort to improve broadband mapping has been ongoing for years, and in 2019 US Telecom in partnership with CostQuest and other industry partners created the fabric pilot program.

That has been instrumental in lead to the new FCC system, panelists said. It is called a “fabric” dataset because it is made up of other datasets that interlace like fabric, Follansbee explained.

The fabric brings new challenges, especially for mobile providers, said Chris Wieczorek of T-Mobile. With a whole new set of reporting criteria to fill out the fabric, it will lead to confusion for consumers, and lots of work for the new task force, he said.

Henze said that without the fabric, closing the digital divide between those with broadband internet and those without has been impossible.

Digital Opportunity Data Collection expected to help better map rural areas

The new mapping can help in rural areas where the current geolocation for a resident may be a mailbox that is several hundred feet or farther away from the actual house that needs service, Follansbee said.

Rural areas aren’t the only places that will benefit, though. It can also help in dense urban areas where vertical location in a residential building is important to getting a good connection, said Wieczorek.

The fabric will also help from a financial perspective, because of the large amount of funding going around, said Charter Communications’ Christine Sanquist. The improved mapping can help identify where best to spend that funding for federal agencies, providers, and local governments, she said.

There is now more than $10 billion in new federal funding for broadband-related projects, with the recent $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020 and the new $7.6 Emergency Connectivity Fund part of the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday.

The new FCC task force for implementing the new mapping system was created in February 2021, and is being led by , led by Jean Kiddoo at the FCC. No specific dates have been set yet for getting the system operational.

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GOP Grills FCC on Improving Broadband Mapping Now, as Agency Spells Out New Rules

Tim White

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Photo of former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaking at the March 2019 launch of US Telecom’s mapping initiative by Drew Clark

March 11, 2021 – Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has changed her stance on the timeline for updating the FCC’s broadband mapping data, and several House and Senate Republicans are wondering why.

“On March 10, 2020, you testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that the FCC could ‘radically improve’ its broadband maps ‘within three-to-six months,’” read the letter, sent Monday to Rosenworcel from the GOP delegation.

“You repeated that statement the next day, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s FSGG Subcommittee that the agency could fix its maps in ‘just a few months.’”

“You can imagine our surprise and disappointment when the FCC recently suggested the new maps would not be ready until 2022,” the letter read, referring to the FCC’s open meeting on February 17, 2021.

“The United States faces a persistent digital divide. The pandemic has made connectivity more important than ever, yet millions of Americans continue to live without high-speed broadband. Any delay in creating new maps would delay funding opportunities for unserved households,” the letter read.

The letter requests Rosenworcel’s response by March 22, 2021, including why she changed the timeline, details on the timeline for developing new maps, how the FCC plans to spend the $98 million funding provided for this updated mapping as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act that passed in December 2020, among other stipulations.

Digital Opportunity Data Collection order spells out rules for mapping

On January 19, 2021, as the final order before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai left his position, the FCC announced new rules for mobile and fixed broadband providers to submit data.

The agency began collecting data from service providers in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, and at that time considered broadband connection speed to be at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps).

While internet speeds have greatly improved since then, the January 19 order still uses the 200 Kbps speed as at least one benchmark measurement 25 years later.

The fact that many Americans still lack access to modern, high-speed broadband has become increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many children lack a consistent connection to the internet for remote learning.

Improving broadband mapping has been a major obstacle for the FCC for several years. Since the Telecommunications Act became law and the commission began gathering data on their Form 477, further legislation has been passed to improve that data, including the National Broadband Plan and National Broadband Map in 2010 and 2011, but many say that the maps still need considerable work.

In August 2019 the FCC launched this new mapping initiative, dubbed “Digital Opportunity Data Collection.” It shifts how the agency gather data from service providers using Form 477. Now, they will be required to provide more granular information.

Then, in March 2020 Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act into law. It further improves the way the FCC much collects broadband mapping data. It wasn’t until the consolidated appropriations bill in December that Congress appropriated funds for the mapping effort.

New order returns to August 2019 principles

Under the new order, fixed broadband providers must submit data for services offered, specifying if they are for residents and/or businesses.

The order states: “This represents a change from the Commission’s proposal in the Second Order and Third Further Notice to collect data separately on residential and on business-and-residential offerings. We find that the approach we adopt will provide us with a more complete picture of the state of broadband deployment.”

Data for non-mass market services do not need to be filed, because the FCC says it does not fall within the scope of the Broadband DATA Act. Data services that will not need to be collected include those purchased by hospitals, schools, libraries, government entities, and other enterprise customers.

The order requires providers to report connection speeds for broadband internet access. The FCC considers a download speed faster than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed faster than 3 Mbps as “advanced telecommunications technology.” That also matches the speed threshold on Form 477, at least since 2015.

Companies must report the maximum advertised speeds in the geographic area if they’re higher than 25/3 Mbps. Although the median fixed broadband speed is much higher than that across America, as reported by Ookla for the fourth quarter of 2020, millions of Americans still lack quality access to the internet.

When providers report their speeds to the FCC under the new order, they must specify in two tiers the connection speed if it falls below the 25/3 Mbps threshold. The first tier is for speeds between 200 kbps and 10/1 Mbps, and the second tier falls between 10/1 Mbps and 25/3 Mbps.

With the new order, fixed wireless providers that submit propagation maps are now required to also submit geographic coordinates—latitude and longitude—for their base stations that provide broadband to their consumers.

Previously, providers were required to submit data only on the spectrum used, height of the base station and type of radio technology. The order details that also verifying the geographic coordinates of base stations will allow for more accurate mapping. Due to the sensitive nature that geographic coordinates may have “for business or national security reasons,” the FCC will consider this new data presumptively confidential.

Latency and signal strength information now required

The new order requires fixed broadband access providers to submit information on latency in their semiannual Digital Opportunity Data Collection filing. The information must detail whether the network round-trip latency for the maximum speed offered in a geographic area is at or below 100 miliseconds.

The agency used the 100 milisecond threshold because it aligns with the requirement for the Connect America Fund Phase II program, which subsidizes companies that provide broadband access in unavailable areas.

Mobile broadband providers are now required to submit signal-strength “heat maps” showing reference signal received power and received signal strength indicator. Both of these metrics are ways of measuring 4G LTE and 5G mobile signal strength.

Covering only outdoor strength, the maps must include data for both pedestrians and drivers. Mobile providers must also submit 3G maps for areas without access to 4G or 5G connections. Due to various factors that affect signal strength, the FCC has not set a floor for minimum signal strength.

Additionally, all mobile and fixed broadband providers must certify each submission by a qualified engineer for accuracy, in addition to the corporate officer certification. The engineer must be employed by the service provider and is directly responsible for or has knowledge of the submitted maps.

FCC verification processes, and the deployment of a broadband fabric

The order permits the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics and Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to request additional information from mobile service providers to verify all necessary information that details either infrastructure information or on-the-ground test data for the area where coverage is provided. The companies must do so within 60 days of the request.

The order also directs OEA to verify mobile on-the-ground data submitted by state, local, and Tribal government entities that are responsible for mapping broadband service coverage. It also permits OEA to similarly verify data from third parties if that data is in the public interest for developing the coverage maps or to verify other data as submitted by providers.

The order also adopted a previous suggestion to implement systems for consumers, governmental or other entities to challenge coverage maps for both fixed broadband and mobile connections, disputing the data submitted by providers.

US Telecom and WISPA, trade association representing telecom and wireless providers in the United States, has been working with CostQuest Associates on a “fabric” mapping system for years. The CostQuest system touts considerable improvement over the FCC’s current broadband mapping. The Fabric is based on granular address-level data.

In this new order, the FCC took the first steps to implementing such a system by adopting the definition of a “location” as a residential or business location at which fixed broadband access service is or can be installed, using geographic coordinates.

The commission declined to use street address data until at least they are able “to determine the types of data and functionality that will be available through the procurement process.”

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Broadband Breakfast Interview with BroadbandNow about Gigabit Coverage and Unreliable FCC Data

Broadband Breakfast Sponsor

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December 27, 2020 – Broadband Now’s new report on gigabit internet coverage in the United States picks upon aspects of the Federal Communications Commission’s unreliable broadband data.

FCC data shows that in 2016, only 4 percent of American had access to a gigabit connection. Fast forward to 2020, and – according to government statistics – 84 percent of Americans reportedly have that same luxury.

Except that it isn’t so.

In this interview with Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper, he and Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark delve into the mechanics of understanding the availability of gigabit broadband networks.

As Broadband Now notes in its report, progress on gigabit deployment in the U.S. has been greatly exaggerated. This is true for the state of the internet in general, as Broadband Now previously illustrated. However, the gigabit landscape is a subsection worth examining more closely, as it is the connectivity threshold that will be required to solve the speed and functionality divides of the near future.

This 18-minute question-and-answer delves into the details: Why gigabit connectivity is important, why the FCC is mismeasuring it, and how Broadband Now has filled out our understanding of this benchmark level of broadband connectivity.

The full report is titled, “Massive Gigabit “Coverage” Increase Highlights How Unreliable Government Broadband Data Can Be.”

Broadband Now Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper

This Broadband Breakfast interview is sponsored by:

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