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ReConnect, a Long-Awaited Agriculture Department Broadband Program, Unveiled by Secretary Sonny Perdue

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WASHINGTON, December 13, 2018 – The Agriculture Department on Thursday unveiled the details of is $600 million broadband loan and grant program – dubbed “ReConnect” – and which was originally called for by appropriations legislation passed in March.

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who spoke at a press briefing at the department’s headquarters near the National Mall.

“Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity,” said Perdue.

The program is being administered by “USDA Rural Development,” the umbrella agency at the Agriculture Department. The “Rural Development” moniker is now being utilized by the department to discuss an array of economic development initiatives.

Indeed, the Rural Utilities Service – the traditional entity within USDA to operate telecommunications and broadband programs – is not even mentioned in the press release.

The former head of RUS, Ken Johnson – appointed in April – no longer works at the USDA, and no replacement has been named. USDA has not responded to repeated requests by BroadbandBreakfast for information about when and why Johnson departed USDA.

Details of the rural development program ReConnect

Municipalities, rural electric coops and utilities, and private internet companies may all apply for funding through the ReConnect program.

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants, plus $200 million for loan and grant combination, and $200 million for low-interest loans. The grant applications are due by April 29, 2019, the loan-grant combination applications are due May 29, and the loan applications are due on June 28.

The USDA will utilize its traditional definition for “rural” in awarding grants and loans: Projects funded through the initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people.

An additional restriction on the awarding of grants is that projects funded through the ReConnect initiative must serve communities with no broadband service or, the Agriculture Department’s press release states, “where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.” The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet connectivity with speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream, and 3 Mbps upstream, rendering 10/1 connections not officially “broadband.”

According to the USDA, the evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities.

Previous research by USDA – and many others – has connected high-capacity broadband to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

Websites and webinars run by the Agriculture Department

USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops, and list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

In April 2017, Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities.

The task force findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America, and increasing investments in rural infrastructure was a key recommendation of the task force.

See the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, as well as the various categories of the recommendations at Rural Prosperity infographic.

More significantly, $600 million in funds were included in the $1.3 trillion congressional omnibus spending bill passed in March.

At the time, Perdue said that “increased support for broadband internet access is in line with administration goals and will be an important boost as we look to improve the economy in rural America.”

Statements of support from other government agencies and industry groups

A variety of government and non-government entities weighed in with support for the ReConnect program.

Said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy:

  • “Millions of rural Americans are on the wrong side of the digital divide, missing out on many of the benefits and opportunities of today’s digital age. In rural areas, seniors lack access to modern health care, students are left behind on educational opportunities, and small businesses in the heartland can’t sell their goods to a global market. Today, the Trump Administration, led by Secretary Perdue and USDA, took important action to bring high-speed internet to rural communities through the launch of the ReConnect Program. This new and innovative pilot program is dedicated to spurring broadband deployment and investment in the areas that need it most. We can’t allow rural America to fall behind, and today’s announcement is a critical step to help all Americans succeed in the 21st century.”

Said David Redl, assistant secretary for communications and information and NTIA administrator:

  • “The Administration is taking an important step to help close the broadband coverage gap for the millions of rural Americans who lack access to broadband connectivity with the launch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million grant and loan program. NTIA looks forward to providing technical assistance to potential applicants through its partnership with USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). NTIA’s BroadbandUSA team has extensive experience working in the telecommunications industry, building broadband networks and consulting with service providers and local governments. Using this expertise, our team will be supporting educational materials and workshops to help applicants with the grant and loan process.”

Industry groups also expressed support, with NTCA (formerly the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association) CEO Shirley Bloomfield saying:

  • “We all recognize the value of and fundamental need for robust, sustainable broadband in rural America—technology that supports health care, education, economic development and more—and we hope this program can be a critical component of delivering on that value and responding to that need.”

No connection between ReConnect and the recently-passed Farm Bill

The ReConnect program bears no connection to the Farm Bill, which was passed on Tuesday by the Senate, and on Wednesday by the House. The bill, which also has some provisions impacting broadband, has not yet been signed by the president.

(Photo of Secretary Perdue on Thursday by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)

 

 

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Satellite

LEO Satellite Technology Should Be in All Schools, Gigabit Libraries Network Says

Satellites, at the very least, can act as backup connections, webinar heard.

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Don Means from the Gigabit Libraries Network

October 21, 2021 – Low earth orbit satellites, which are expected to help connect a portion of people who live in remote regions of the country, should be available to all libraries – even if it’s just for redundancy, the director of Gigabit Libraries Network said Thursday.

Don Means, the director of the organization that has a deal with SpaceX’s Starlink beta service to connect a “handful” of libraries, said the technology can be used as backup in the event of a disaster.

“We think this should be in every library, even if it’s a place that has a connection – this would be very valuable as a backup because consider any kind of lights out scenario in a community,” Means said. “With this system, it bypasses the local infrastructure, and if you have a power source and you have a [satellite] dish, you’re connected.”

Earlier this month, Means said libraries will need various ways to stay connected and provide access to public Wi-Fi. While the “cheapest, most equitable, most economical way to connect every community with next generation broadband is to run fiber to all of the 17,000 libraries,” Means said previously, other solutions will need to be considered where geography doesn’t allow for a direct fiber connection.

The LEO constellation is unique compared to other kinds of satellites because it hovers closer to earth, theoretically meaning it provides better connectivity and lower latency, or the time it takes for the devices to communicate with the network.

The House is waiting to vote on an infrastructure bill that will pour billions into broadband. People have debated what kinds of technology the money should go toward, with some arguing for hard wiring and others saying wireless technologies have a space at the table.

Despite having a deal with Starlink, Means said he encourages LEO satellite technology in general and not just Starlink in particular.

“We’re not advocates or agents for Starlink,” Means said, “it’s just they’re the first ones out there with this technology. There are others coming…this is a new thing, a burgeoning thing.”

Starlink said this summer it had shipped 100,000 terminals to customers.

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FCC

Housing, Public Interest Groups Oppose Multitenant Exclusivity Agreements

The FCC is looking at how to promote broadband competition and access in buildings.

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Photo of Jenna Leventoff from Internet Law & Policy Foundry

WASHINGTON, October 21, 2021 – Opponents of exclusivity arrangements that give tenants of multitenant buildings less choice of internet service provider are urging the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate all manifestations of these contracts that they say harms competition and locks landlords into burdensome long-term contracts.

While the FCC has previously banned exclusive access agreements that granted a single provider sole access to a building, it did not do so for exclusive wiring, marketing and revenue sharing arrangements. That means third party service providers cannot share the building wires with the telecom with that privilege and cannot market their services to the building’s residents.

The FCC launched a comment period in September to field arguments about what to do with these holdout issues that gave priority to ISPs. In an early submission, the internet and television association NCTA said the commission should deny all broadband providers exclusive access to these buildings, but not exclusive wiring agreements.

Internet and competitive networks association INCOMPAS said in its submission that the competitive environment has continued to suffer due to these exclusive deals and, in the case of retail shopping centers, their deals have been extended over the “last several years.”

It is asking for a complete ban on the wiring, marketing and revenue sharing arrangements, which they say “make it tougher for new entrants to effectively compete in MTEs.

“Competitive providers are still asked to participate in revenue sharing arrangements or are routinely denied access to MTEs because of exclusive wiring or marketing agreements,” INCOMPAS said, adding consumers and businesses “lose out on the faster speeds, lower pricing, and better customer service that competitors offer.”

Public Knowledge similarly said there is a lack of competition emerging from these practices that is increasing prices and restricting choice for tenants.

“Although the FCC has banned explicit exclusive agreements in multi-tenant environments (MTEs) such as apartment, condos, and office buildings, landlords and internet service providers have exploited loopholes to nevertheless create de facto monopolies in buildings,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge.

The group is asking for a ban on “all types” of these arrangements that “negatively impact consumer choice, ensuring all ISPs have access to a building’s wiring regardless of the owner, creating a ‘rocket docket’ to quickly adjudicate supposed violations, and creating a single regulatory regime for both commercial and residential MTEs.”

In a joint submission on Wednesday, Consolidated Communications Holdings and Ziply Fiber said they “often confront such anti-competitive agreements,” with revenue sharing and marketing arrangements being the most “prevalent and troublesome.

“In practice, these agreements frequently work together as a complete bar to competing providers, giving the incumbent broadband provider a de facto exclusive service agreement with respect to an MTE,” the submission said, alleging MTE owners will “explicitly cite their lucrative revenue sharing agreements with an existing provider as their reason for not allowing our companies to access their buildings” and so to not to lose out on that compensation.

Harm on building owners

For the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, exclusive wiring arrangements have not only limited choice for residents, but it has allegedly locked housing providers into “long-term onerous contracts that prohibit them from pursuing connectivity solutions, such as owner-provided broadband, at their properties.”

Members of the affordable housing group are recommending the FCC impose “reasonable standards” on such agreements, which require ISPs to offer low-cost programs or owner provided broadband at a competitive cost and give landlords an option to exit or renegotiate a contract after a certain time.

The FCC’s look into the issue comes after a bill, introduced on July 30 by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-New York, outlined plans to address exclusivity agreements between residential units and service providers, which sees providers lock out other carriers from buildings and leaving residents with only one option for internet.

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Infrastructure

Federal Communications Commission Dispenses $544 Million in Rural Broadband Funds

Funds targeted towards internet providers in areas with poor digital access across 19 states.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, October 20, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that it would authorize another $554 million for expansion of broadband service through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The funding announcement represented the finalization of a relatively small portion of the funding awarded as part of $9.3 billion granted in the first phase of the RDOF reverse auction in October and November 2020.

Together with other recent press announcements dribbling out details of RDOF awards, Wednesday’s news puts the FCC’s awards at just more than $1 billion of the $9.3 billion originally awarded at auction.

The FCC, which says that it aims to place broadband infrastructure in areas where it is not currently available, denied LTD Broadband’s petition seeking waiver of the deadline to be designated as an Eligible Telecommunication Carrier in Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota. Becoming an ETC was a necessary prerequisite to receiving RDOF funds.

The agency also denied NW Fiber’s petition seeking waiver of the deadline for submission of a post-auction “long form” application.

With the latest wave of funding, 11 internet providers will be able to bring fiber-to-home gigabit broadband service to more than 180,000 locations across 19 states.

Michigan and Georgia were the states that received the most funding in this wave with $188 and $149 million, respectively. The FCC has cited broadband expansion as an even more necessary priority since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Broadband is an essential service and during the pandemic we’ve seen just how critical it is for families, schools, hospitals and businesses to have affordable internet access,” said Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

The FCC also said that they were working to “clean up” the program and address some of the controversial aspects of RDOF funding decisions.

These decisions included:

  • Sending letters to 197 applicants concerning areas where there was evidence of existing service or questions of waste. Bidders have already chosen not to pursue support in 5,094 census blocks in response to the Commission’s letters.
  • Denying waivers for winning bidders that have not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals or prosecute their applications.  These bidders would have otherwise received more than $344 million.
  • Pulishing a list of areas where providers had defaulted, thereby making those places available for other broadband funding opportunities.
  • Conducting an exhaustive technical, financial, and legal review of all winning bidders.

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