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Broadband Mapping & Data

In Rural Areas, Private Partnerships Waste No Time in Closing the Digital Divide

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of panelists and participants at the INCOMPAS policy summit by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2020 – Private partnerships play a more crucial role in rural broadband buildout than all the federal and public programs available to help, said C Spire Senior Vice President of Strategic Relations Ben Moncrief.

He was a speaker on Tuesday at the INCOMPAS policy summit and touted initiatives to deploy broadband in rural communities.

Microsoft Airband U.S. Management Leader Erica Myers said Microsoft is partnering with ISPs and equipment providers to support companies working to close the digital divide.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative began in 2017 and declared efforts to bring broadband to two million rural Americans, said Myers. She also spoke about

the petition filed last week with Federal Communications Commission regarding TV white space technology.

Myers called TV white space a “game changer” because it can cover rural areas in a cost-effective way. One of the obstacles of closing the rural digital divide is the cost to companies who are building out and serving a small population.

Depending on the antenna levels, the signal can also pass through buildings and shrubbery, said Myers.

Moncrief agreed that rural areas face an economic disadvantage. Because small rural communities tend to have a congregated aspect even if the houses are still spread apart, “harvest[ing]” fiber from the highways for the local WISPs can help financially.

In response to a question about the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Moncrief was hesitant. The program will allocate $20.4 billion to fund rural broadband buildout for millions of homes and businesses.

While it is great that RDOF “favors fiber,” the mapping data it uses is incorrect, said Moncrief.

Moncrief said he is worried that as RDOF takes off, policy will be created from “bad data.”

Myers echoed Moncrief’s sentiment. Bad mapping data limits access to federal and state funding, said Myers.

Moncrief said C Spire has been able to engage in an unlikely, but effective partnership with Alabama Power to spread fiber.

Myers said one issue Microsoft has faced is broadband adoption. “Where the training comes, the adoption follows,” said Myers.

Because rural communities have been living without access, it is important to “make the connection for people and show them how this can improve their lives,” Myers insisted.

Hogan Lovells Partner Michele Farquhar expressed excitement over the recent spectrum auction announcements at the FCC.

Midband spectrum is great for 5G, said Farquhar.

Adrienne Patton was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. She studied English rhetoric and writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She grew up in a household of journalists in South Florida. Her father, the late Robes Patton, was a sports writer for the Sun-Sentinel who covered the Miami Heat, and is for whom the press lounge in the American Airlines Arena is named.

Broadband Mapping

FCC Speed Test App To Improve Broadband Mapping, Agency Says

The agency hopes its new speed test will inform an initiative for more accurate broadband maps.

Tim White

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April 12, 2021 – As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to collect comprehensive data on broadband availability across the United States, the agency is encouraging the public to download its Speed Test app, it announced Monday.

The FCC is using data collected from the app as part of the Measuring Broadband America program. The app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks. In addition to showing network performance test results to the user, the app provides the test results to the FCC while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of program volunteers. It is available on the major app stores.

“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability,” Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.”

The network coverage and performance information gathered from the Speed Test data will help to inform the commission’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data. The app will also be used in the future for consumers to challenge provider-submitted maps when the Broadband Data Collection systems become available.

The FCC has been working to improve its broadband mapping system from Form 477 for several years. Development of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection system began in August 2019, and Rosenworcel created a task force in February 2021 to advance that system. On April 7, the agency announced May 7 as the date for establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Vermont House Backs $150 Million Broadband Plan Creating New State Office

Jericho Casper

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Photo by Michelle Raponi used with permission

A bill dedicating $150 million of anticipated federal funding to create a new state broadband office to coordinate and accelerate the expansion of high-speed Internet access throughout Vermont passed the State House of Representatives last week with overwhelming bipartisan support.

On March 24th, the Vermont House approved H.B. 360 by a vote of 145-1, backing the creation of the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. If the bill becomes law it would help fund and organize the deployment of broadband infrastructure between Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and their potential partners, which include electric distribution utilities, nonprofit organizations, the federal government, and private Internet Service Providers.

The bill was introduced in the state Senate last Friday, and discussed for the first time in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Enabled by a 2015 law, CUDs are local governmental bodies consisting of two or more towns joined together to build communications infrastructure. They were established to create innovative solutions to build broadband networks and provide a combination of Fiber-to-the-Home and fixed wireless Internet connectivity in their respective territories across Vermont, especially in areas where incumbent ISPs fail to provide adequate service.

Vermont’s CUDs, which have called for federal funding assistance since the onset of the pandemic, are ideally positioned to distribute funds in a way that will provide reliable and high-performance Internet access to every nook-and-cranny of the state. Vermont’s active CUDs have already constructed deep pockets of fiber.

Whether or not the CUDs will be able to reach the state’s goal of delivering universal 100/100 Megabits per second (Mbps) Internet service by 2024 now rests in the hands of Vermont’s Senate, Congress, and the Biden Administration as state and federal lawmakers wrestle with how to best expand access to broadband.

CUDs Desire State Block Grants

The U.S. government has not yet provided guidance on how states will be able to distribute the federal dollars headed their way. In this sense, amendments added to H.B. 360 before it passed Vermont’s House, increasing the bill’s appropriation from an initial $30 million to $150 million, reflect the CUDs call for federal funding and state lawmakers’ desire for the federal government to establish rules that give states flexibility to utilize the funding how they see fit.

As of yet, it appears one of the main sources of broadband infrastructure funding allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, will be awarded in the form of state block grants. States will be awarded between $100 million and $500 million in block grants for capital projects, which include building improved telecommunications networks at a time when remote work, education, and telehealth are more prevalent than ever.

Vermont’s CUDs are hoping little to no constraints are placed on how states can spend incoming federal grant money. In conversation with ILSR, Carole Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet (the operations company of Vermont’s first fully-operating CUD, ECFiber) expressed deep frustrations about the strings that were attached to CARES Act funding. Recipients of CARES Act money were required to spend the funds within months of it being distributed. Monroe lamented the fact that it forced recipients to pursue short-term solutions.

“By the time it reached the state, it was too late to do anything except a few wireless access points here or there,” said Monroe.

“We’ve all been hoping for an infrastructure bill, but I think there will be many strings attached,” she said, cognizant of her past experiences with bureaucratic contingencies on funding. If the funding comes in the form of “block grants to the state it will make it much easier to move forward” because Vermont has a strategic and well-developed plan.

CUDs Need Startup Capital, and to Consolidate

Based on a Magellan Advisors’ report commissioned by Vermont’s Department of Public Services, it is estimated that it will cost $1 billion to deploy broadband infrastructure to the estimated 254,000 locations (82 percent of Vermont) that currently lack 100/100 Mbps symmetrical service (see inline map below, or high-resolution version at the bottom of this story).

CUDs have historically had limited access to the financial capital necessary for expansion into unserved and underserved areas of the state, as previous broadband grant programs have not offered the scale to solve the problem, and traditional funding sources tend to shy away from investing in entities with limited revenue history and little collateral.

Though private investors are beginning to show interest in funding CUDs initiatives, Vermont’s CUDs see the incoming federal funding as a rare opportunity for the infusion of start-up capital initially necessary for CUDs to be financially self-sufficient.

Monroe said that in order for CUDs to be self-supporting they need enough capital for three years of audited financials, three years of positive cash flow, and three years of positive EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization). After getting CUDs to that point, they would then be able to access the municipal bond market, in which interest on money borrowed is not taxable.

While H.B. 360 will help by developing favorable taxing, financing, and regulatory mechanisms to support CUDs, Monroe suggested that it may also make sense for some of Vermont’s smaller CUDs to work together, consolidating Vermont’s nine CUDs into perhaps five or six. Some of the CUDs are very small (serving only about 10 rural towns), which may make it more difficult to gain return on investment.

Potential Partnerships

At the heart of H.B. 360 is a call for increased partnerships to deliver resilient last-mile broadband infrastructure. It will be interesting to follow Vermont’s CUDs to see what entities they end up partnering with, as each partnership is likely to be unique.

Last Friday, Consolidated Communications, a major provider of Internet service in the region, responded to a CUDs request for proposal, demonstrating that the private ISP is willing to partner with the CUDs to deliver high-speed Internet service.

According to Monroe, a large portion of ECFiber’s 6,000 current subscribers switched from Consolidated Communications, so the company quickly learned they needed to improve its service and/or partner with the CUDs to remain viable in the state.

Consolidated Communications could be a desirable partner for Vermont’s CUDs given that they already have access to many pole attachments throughout the state. This will save CUDs from spending already-limited funds on utility pole attachments and make-ready work that often leads to increased costs in the buildout of broadband networks.

Another potential partner for CUDs is Green Mountain Power (GMP), the major electric utility in Vermont, which recently reached an agreement with the Department of Public Service to cover the costs of up to $2,000 for make-ready work in each of the utility’s unserved locations. With 7,500 unserved locations in the utility’s service area, the agreement would reduce the cost of building broadband networks within their footprint by as much as $15 million. Many CUDs are working to calculate how the cost-savings agreement could significantly advance their efforts to expand broadband into unserved regions.

The electric utility’s contributions would also help bring equity to Vermont’s energy sector. Currently all Vermont electric ratepayers are contributing to the rollout of clean energy technologies, yet not all ratepayers are able to access those technologies because they do not have access to adequate broadband.

One thing is clear: Vermont state lawmakers see federal funding, guided by new state legislation, as key to creating a more equitable future and delivering universal broadband access for its citizens.

See a high-resolution map of locations served by 100/100 Mbps in Vermont here.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper with the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

State Broadband Authorities Play Crucial Role in Mapping, Planning and Educating for Digital Inclusion

Tim White

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April 2, 2021 – State broadband authorities working close to the ground say that the key to tackling the digital divide are states and local communities.

Accurately mapping where broadband is available has been a challenge for many years, and the latest Federal Communications Commission effort is creating a new “fabric” system that collects more granular data than the agency’s Form 477.

The Biden administration is looking at Congress making large funding investment in broadband. But the state broadband authorities speaking at Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast Live Online event said that local efforts are essential to inform where funding is best used.

“Local communities may know better than anyone what is working and not working,” said Scott Rudd, director of broadband opportunities in Indiana’s Broadband Office.

Local communities provide central insight into broadband availability and use

Indiana encourages communities to engage their residents and businesses on the street level to find out what is happening in their neighborhood to get a better picture of who does or doesn’t get broadband, he said.

Colorado Broadband Office’s Teresa Ferguson said that the relationship with local communities was critical. The Colorado state geographic information system team works closely with local residents to crowdsource data to more accurately map broadband availability and to obtain consumer input. “We need to have that local voice to advocate for the community’s needs,” she said.

Matt Schmit, director for Illinois’ broadband office, stressed the value that the federal government can provide if broadband mapping is done correctly.

“Our federal partners, if they did it right, could really contribute to the overall effort in a really meaningful way,” he said. “A standardized kind of base or platform from which states and localities can innovate off of,” he said.

The key components to mapping are accuracy, timeliness and granularity, and combining those with “field validation survey work” and speed test data, he said.

Federal funding provides new opportunities to consider federal-state relationship

With so much federal funding being considered for broadband projects, Schmit said now is an opportunity to recalibrate state and federal cooperation.

“The states have proven their capability, they’ve got street cred now,” Ferguson said. States are very effective at implementing funding when they are given that leeway, as compared to one-size-fits-all funding solutions that aren’t always effective, she said.

The Connect America Fund and the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auctions are raising concerns for states because, under FCC rules, awardees do not need to completely build out for six years. That means some state residents may not see broadband for several years, she said.

Maryland’s strong county government structure means that the state relies heavily on county jurisdictions to provide availability data, said Rick Gordon, director of the Maryland governor’s rural broadband office. The state does not yet have a mapping program.

Maryland implemented two grant programs to subsidize building broadband out to unserved areas for service providers, Gordon said. They rely on local jurisdictions in which a local community is paired with a local providers to build the infrastructure.

State-led grassroots relationships and public-private partnerships

In Hawai’i, strategy officer Burt Lum explained that due to lacking of funding, the state began a grassroots effort through a Broadband Hui in 2020. (A “hui” means a group.)

The Broadband Hui is a collection of community stakeholders to find solutions for extending connectivity across the islands. They narrowed down their goals to access, literacy and livelihood, he said. He highlighted the need for better mapping and data gathering tools for Hawai’i.

In addition to better mapping tools, both Schmit and Lum emphasized digital literacy. “The pandemic has really shown a bright light on the fact that many populations in our state don’t have the digital literacy skills to take full advantage of the internet or the computers that they might have,” Schmit said.

Because so much of participation in society is digital, computer and digital literacy for residents are important, Lum said.

Even in solving these other problems, there is still a potential shortage of manpower and materials to actually build the broadband infrastructure. “Material and manpower are probably one of my biggest concerns right now,” Gordon said.

Gordon said that he had been discussing internship and apprenticeship options with electric companies that are branching into broadband. Further, in some rural areas, it’s almost impossible to find the skillset needed to build and operate these networks.

With federal funding coming, it may be difficult to meet the timelines set for that funding, he said. “While they’re trying to solve a problem, they’re creating a different problem,” he said.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the March 31, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “State Broadband Authorities

  • Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce created the State Broadband Initiative. The partnership between state government officials, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission included an important component for state officials in broadband mapping. But State Broadband Initiatives did much more: They coordinated infrastructure investments, facilitated training and grants for digital literacy and digital inclusion, and helped raise consumer awareness about broadband. What’s the next chapter for state broadband authorities?

Panelists:

  • Scott Rudd, Director of Broadband Opportunities, Indiana Broadband Office
  • Teresa Ferguson, Director of Federal Broadband Engagement, Colorado Broadband Office (CBO)
  • Matt Schmit, Director, Illinois Office of Broadband
  • Kenrick Gordon, Director, Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, Maryland
  • Burt Lum, Strategy Officer, the Hawaii Broadband Initiative
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Scott Rudd currently serves as Director of Broadband Opportunities at the Indiana Broadband Office. He works closely with Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs on the Next Level Connections broadband grant program. Mr. Rudd has traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with federal legislators, learning more about the federal perspective of legislation regarding broadband and communicating Indiana’s strategy. Previously Mr. Rudd operated as the town manager and economic development director for the town of Nashville, Indiana, where he oversaw seven town commissions, three task forces, directed four departments and served as the town’s public information officer for four years. In that capacity, he also founded the Brown County Broadband Task Force to help steer the county’s broadband strategy and secured more than $20 million in private broadband investments to expand access to more than 7,500 homes and businesses in the area.

Teresa Ferguson is the Director, Federal Broadband Engagement for the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO). Prior to joining the CBO she worked for the Public Utilities Commissions of Missouri, Washington and Colorado where she held national leadership positions, engaging with the FCC, USAC, USDA and NARUC, advocating on behalf of state telecom & broadband policy interests. Ms. Ferguson spent 17 years in the private sector deploying broadband networks for schools & libraries and tribal nations funded through the federal E-Rate program.

Matt Schmit currently serves as Director of the Illinois Office of Broadband, where integration of 21st century infrastructure and service delivery is a primary focus of his work and research. He previously held office as a senator in his home state of Minnesota, and has served on many legislative boards on broadband deployment, transportation policy & investment, and community & economic development. In addition, Mr. Schmit has served on the Cook County Council on Digital Equity (CODE), the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) board, the Blandin Broadband Strategies board, the St John’s University Board of Regents, and the Legislative Water Commission; represented Minnesota on the National Conference of State Legislators Nuclear Energy Work Group and Commerce Committee; and was an active member of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and State Ag and Rural Leaders.

Kenrick Gordon currently serves as Director of the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, where he oversees the expansion of broadband capabilities statewide to bring access to households and businesses in Maryland’s rural areas. He has over 30 years in engineering design and construction administration experience, beginning as a civil engineer working with municipalities on public works projects, then moving into commercial and industrial development. Mr. Gordon has also served at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a General Field Representative for the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Telecommunications Program.

Burt Lum is the State of Hawaii’s Strategy Officer for the Hawaii Broadband Initiative dedicated to digital equity and ensuring that Hawaii establishes robust, resilient, ubiquitous connectivity to the global broadband network. He was previously the Executive Director of Hawaii Open Data, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the principles of open data/knowledge in Hawaii, including policy work and community collaborations. He has more than 30 years in Hawaii’s technology and communications sector and is a frequent speaker and panelist on the topic of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Moderator Drew Clark, the Editor of Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, is also a telecommunications attorney at Marashlian & Donahue, PLLC, The CommLaw Group. Clark served as executive director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, the State Broadband Initiative in the land of Lincoln. PCI engaged in broadband mapping and planning, infrastructure investment, and digital literacy training. For more than a decade, Clark has been one of country’s leading voices advocating for improved broadband mapping efforts and a rational geospatial system for collecting broadband data.

Panelist Resources

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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