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

Drew Clark

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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.

Expert Opinion

Gary Bolton: Satellite’s Polite Conceit of Unserved/Underserved

Broadband Breakfast Staff

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Gary Bolton, President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association and author of this Expert Opinion piece

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

SpaceX Starlink is the latest satellite broadband project to invoke the needs of unserved and underserved consumers to justify Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) licensing. The polite fiction spun by it and other satellite companies, nurtured by today’s short-form news cycle, is that such networks will deliver broadband services to anyone who needs them.

However, a less liberal appraisal recognizes these multi-billion dollar capital-intensive efforts are dependent upon business and government customers for economic survival and will deliver services only to those who can best afford them.

The marketing conceit of “broadband for all” is not new and dates back more than a decade to the launch of the O3b mPower satellite constellation, with “O3b” standing for the “Other three billion” in the world that didn’t have broadband internet. Over the years, the company delivered services to the Cook Islands, Pakistan, and Nigeria along with four of the five major cruise lines fleet, NOAA, and the Department of Defense, listing verticals such as telcos and MNOs, governments, energy and mining companies, cruise and commercial maritime, enterprise, and aviation.

More recently, SES has partnered with Microsoft to deliver Azure Cloud access anywhere in the world, but there are no clear statistics on how many of the other three billion O3b has added to the internet.

“Our vision can change the lives of billions: almost half the entire human population is not yet connected,” OneWeb claims, but its targeted customers are maritime, aviation, enterprise, and government, with 5G worked in for good measure. There’s no clearly articulated path on how selling to big businesses translates into affordable access for billions of unserved and underserved people.

“Because that’s where the money is,” Willie Sutton, bank robber, once stated.

SpaceX executives believe the Starlink network could bring in as much as $30 billion a year, cash the company will use to fund Elon Musk’s ambition to colonize Mars. The company’s March 5, 2021, FCC filing requesting a blanket license for “earth stations in motion” (ESIM) focused on the company’s ability to deliver broadband services to large vehicles, ships and aircraft – going after the same government, maritime, and aviation sectors as O3b and OneWeb.

A week earlier, PC Mag expressed “concern” that urban Starlink deployments would take up satellite capacity “for the rural users who really need it. Starlink will have to manage its signups smartly.” Other publications have repeated the premise that Starlink’s reason for existence is to provide service to the unserved/underserved, so there’s no reason to worry about satellite affecting planned greenfield fiber deployments or network upgrades.

The cold truth is SpaceX is out to make money, so it’s going to sign up as many customers as can best afford the service and prioritize customers bringing in higher revenues such as enterprise, governments, and verticals. Revenue management is the name of the game, not rural users who need it. It is the same business template O3b and OneWeb are following today and Telesat and Amazon will in the future.

Satellite services provide both good and bad aspects for underserved/unserved geographics. In some clear cases, satellite will be the most cost-effective way to deliver broadband to rural locations because the local phone or cable company cannot economically provide a viable alternative. Higher-speed services such as Starlink should also serve as a competitive stimulus for rural incumbents to upgrade networks on a more proactive basis than simply “milking the asset” until things break or customers start leaving to other options.

It remains to be seen if Starlink services will have a large-scale detrimental impact on rural service providers and will depend the concentration of Starlink customers within a specific geographic area.  One or two customers picking up satellite services is unlikely to influence fiber buildout or network upgrade plans, but 10 or more most certainly could, especially if some of those customers are local business and government purchasers.

Gary Bolton serves as president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association — the largest trade association in the Americas dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. With more than three decades in the telecom industry, Bolton has been highly involved in Washington, particularly on FCC and Congressional proceedings and international trade issues. He holds an MBA from Duke University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected]. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Infrastructure

Telecoms Should Actively Build Broadband Infrastructure Through Road Developments

Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist said telecoms should be right there alongside new road builds and improvements.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Garlin Gilchrist via YouTube

April 15, 2021 – Telecom and municipal partnerships should be forged when new roads are built so fiber can be laid as construction begins, Michigan’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said Tuesday.

A good time to expand and improve broadband is when roads are being paved and improved, he said Tuesday at the Connected Nation Telehealth Summit. ISPs can play a larger role during this process and increase competition for consumer benefit as more options become available, he noted.

Beyond physical infrastructure needs, ISPs should work more and better with education and healthcare providers, the conference heard.

Schools, libraries, and all levels of government from local to national need to be aware of their roles and responsibilities to close the digital divide, Gilchrist said.

With no internet, telehealth would be in danger when critical response teams cannot be there in person to tend to a patient’s needs, he said, adding investing in the internet is the same as investing in education and health. No matter your zip code, or where you live, or how bad the pandemic has affected daily life, everyone should have the means to access affordable broadband that actually meets their needs.

“Different partnerships are needed,” said Sarah Tennant, sector development director and cyber initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Gilchrist said he recognized the impact generational racial disparity and inequality had on the lives of people of color in Michigan and across the country. Lack of broadband for people of color can be seen as another form of racial injustice.

In trying to tackle that, he said connecting the underconnected with broadband is a top priority of the state.

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Europe

Openreach Partners With STL For Fiber Build

Openreach aims to get 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by later this decade.

Tim White

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Screenshot of STL's Ankit Agarwal via YouTube

April 14, 2021 – STL, or Sterlite Technologies Limited, announced Wednesday a partnership with Openreach, the United Kingdom’s largest digital network business to expand its “Full Fiber” broadband network across the UK.

STL, a global network designer from India, will provide millions of kilometers of fiber to develop Openreach’s goal of 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by late 2020s.

“This collaboration with Openreach strengthens a 14-year-old technology and supply relationship between the two companies and further reinforces STL’s commitment to the UK market,” the company said in a statement.

Openreach will use STL’s Opticonn solution, a fiber and cable build that the company claims offers better performance and faster installation, according to the release statement. The company will also utilize STL’s new celesta ribbon cable that boasts a capacity of up to 6,912 fibers, the statement added.

“Our Full Fiber network build is going faster than ever. We need partners like STL on board to not only help sustain that momentum, but also to provide the skills and innovation to help us go even further,” Openreach’s Kevin Murphy said in a statement. “We know the network we’re building can deliver a host of social and economic benefits – from boosting UK productivity to enabling more home working and fewer commuting trips – but we’re also trying to make this one of the greenest network builds in the world.”

Ankit Agarwal, CEO of connectivity solutions business at STL, said, “our customized, 5G-ready optical solutions are ideally suited for Openreach’s future-proof network requirements and we believe they will enable next-gen digital experiences for homes and businesses across UK. This partnership will be a major step towards our mission of transforming billions of lives through digital networks,” he said in a statement.

Openreach’s network now reaches 4.5 million premises, offering gigabit-capable connection through a range of competing providers on the network, and the company is building at a rate of about 42 thousand new homes and businesses a week, according to the release.

The UK parliament has set a goal to get 85 percent of UK homes and businesses access to gigabit-speed broadband by 2025. They reported that as of September 2020, 27 percent of UK premises received that connection speed, and 95 percent have access to “superfast broadband” which the government defines as at least 30 megabits per second download speed.

Parliament acknowledged that although “superfast broadband is sufficient for most household needs today, the demand for data-intensive services such as online video streaming is increasing and can push the limits of a superfast broadband connection. The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for widely available and reliable digital connectivity.”

STL is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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