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Community Broadband Efforts Alive and Thriving in Ohio, Maryland and Utah

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PITTSBURGH, August 16, 2018 – Big telecommunications providers are not making it easy for communities to step up and offer robust broadband service, even in low-density areas that the private sector has declined to serve for years, according to experts speaking at a July 23 Next Century Cities conference here.

Among the local examples: Medina County Fiber Network

In Medina County, Ohio, a town about 30 miles south of Cleveland, David Corrado, CEO of Medina County Fiber Network, advocated for setting down a fiber network and keeping it open as a utility.

“You have to have that fiber as a utility in your municipality,” Corrado said. “And the other thing is, you have to make sure you open it up. You don’t have to fight the incumbents. You can be, if you have to be, a product.”

Corrado’s fiber network, established in 2013, is owned by Medina County Port Authority and runs 151 miles long with 144 strands of dark fiber.

The port authority calls the network an ‘e-corridor’ for high-bandwidth capacity

The port authority describes the network as a “e-corridor” that links participants such as businesses, libraries, and schools with carriers, and serves to keep the county competitive with increased data bandwidth services.

The only shareholders are the community members, and the network was funded through grants and bonds, providing a prime example of a successful community-led effort to build a fiber network.

According to Corrado, the Medina County Fiber Network is an “open fiber network, focused on commercial.” However, in order for an open fiber network to work, he said it has to be treated as a utility.

“Think of one big railroad track,” Corrado said. “We have fourteen carriers on the network and we are basically selling their products. They bring their trains onto our railroad track and think of each of those [train]cars as bringing internet, voice, data services.”

Garrett County’s wireless broadband network

Cheryl DeBarry, representing Garrett County, Maryland, described efforts to set up broadband access in areas that the private sector has avoided due to a lack of business case for the low-density areas.

According to DeBarry, she avoids much of the hostility and competition with incumbent service providers by targeting areas that the private sector avoids.

“They’re never gonna go there by themselves,” DeBarry said. “They aren’t mad at us for being in those areas at all,” she said, referring to areas that are uneconomic business case for fiber networks.”The bottom line is they don’t want the areas we’re working on.”

DeBarry added that finally some providers such as Comcast are entering Garrett County, and beginning to work through agreements on rights-of-way. “They are expanding with our help in some areas,” DeBarry said. “Other providers have said ‘yeah, no thanks.’”

Utah’s UTOPIA fiber network has moved from tensions to high reliability

However, Kim McKinley, representative of UTOPIA Fiber, described a different story– one of massive tensions and hostility between UTOPIA and incumbent providers.

Officially named the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, UTOPIA Fiber was founded in 2004 from 11 cities working together to create a fiber to the home network delivering connectivity to every home in the communities.

The network relies on fiber optic cables and uses an open-access model, where UTOPIA provides the infrastructure and allows local ISPS open access to use the infrastructure to provide their services. According to UTOPIA, the fiber optic cable network provides speeds up to 30 times faster than the copper wire models that some incumbent providers–at least partially–rely on.

McKinley described harassment from private sector companies such as Comcast. “They show up all the time because they are trying to shut us down,” McKinley said. “We’re delivering on the surface and getting our cities who started this project to keep backing it. They’re just nasty folks there in Utah. They don’t like us.”

While DeBarry claimed that the reason they were unbothered by incumbent providers was because they avoided targeted areas and focused on low density areas, McKinley argued that UTOPIA Fiber had done the same, and still faced heavy hostility for low-density areas such as a “300 home community.”

“We just combat them with delivery and doing what they do better than they can,” McKinley said.

(Photo of David Corrado of the Medina County Fiber Network from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

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Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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