June 17, 2020 — There are many opportunities for the deployment of broadband technologies, representatives for the states of Tennessee and Colorado said in a webinar Wednesday.
Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement for the state of Colorado, said that there are numerous opportunities for Colorado broadband organizations.
The Strategic Planning and Middle Mile Infrastructure Grants commit $25 million for more than 20 regional broadband projects. The grant has allowed for the deployment of three middle-mile networks to connect northwest and southwest Colorado, Ferguson said.
“We think that this holistic approach allows us to fund broadband to the home and to provide cost-effective backhaul alternatives to our communities,” she added.
Additionally, Ferguson said that the last-mile deployment grants had awarded $34 million for 43 projects in unserved areas, helping to serve over 21 thousand homes, farms and ranches.
“87 percent of our rural households now have access to broadband speeds of at least 25/3,” she said. “That’s a 17 percent increase in rural connectivity since 2016.”
Opportunities are similar in Tennessee, said Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the office of community and rural development for the state of Tennessee.
Ivey said that the passage of the Tennessee Broadband Addressability Act had helped their mission to close the digital divide in the state.
“Within that legislation, there were various programs and things that we were trying to do to address broadband gaps across the state of Tennessee,” she said.
These programs included the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, which provides three years of grant funding for the capital costs of infrastructure deployment, as well as to local broadband providers.
Another program is the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant, which Ivey said will provide funding to “any entity legally authorized to provide retail broadband to customers in Tennessee,” continuing to increase internet accessibility.
The coronavirus has made internet access virtually indispensable and highlighted the need for accessibility across the country, and the representatives expressed hope that the agency programs will assist with closing the rural digital divide.
Accurate Maps Required To Estimate Cost Of Connecting Rural America, Experts Say
Experts say it’s difficult to get an understanding of cost for connecting rural regions without quality maps.
April 22, 2021—The House Agriculture Committee convened a hearing this week to discuss the needs and costs associated with expanding broadband coverage to rural constituencies, hearing that accurate maps will be needed to get a better idea of those costs.
Chairman David Scott, D-Georgia, wanted concrete numbers during the hearing held Tuesday. He pressed witnesses for what they believed it would cost to cover the estimated 24 million rural Americans who are currently living in underserved areas of the country.
Vickie Robinson, general manager of the Microsoft Global Airband Initiative, was hesitant to throw out a hard number. “There are estimates that suggest that the cost to reach those that are unserved is anywhere from 60 to 80 billion dollars,” Robinson said. But those estimates should not necessarily be relied upon, she said, adding, “We haven’t first done the hard but necessary work to accurately map where those gaps exist.”
Robinson said the FCC currently does not have the tools necessary to effectively map these gaps, and that congress could enable them to do so by providing better funding for the Broadband Data Act that was passed in March of 2020. She stated that only after this mapping is completed can the government begin to determine which technologies would be best suited to meet current demand, and ultimately, a price tag.
Could cost as much as $150 billion
Not all witnesses were so hesitant to provide estimates. CEO of the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network Johnny Park estimated that providing coverage for the rural regions in question would cost approximately $150 billion. He indicated that costs could be kept down by continuing to promote innovation, explore emerging technologies, and collect mapping data to determine how to best meet the needs of unserved Americans.
“It is not a one size fits all solution,” Park said. “We need to embrace a diversity [of technology] to make sure that the right type of technology is deployed.”
Scott closed out the meeting on an ominous note: “There is no mistake about it—China wants to take our place as the leading agriculture industry in the world.” He stated that while the rest of the world is continuing to push forward, the U.S.’s inability to get its farmers connected would result in it being surpassed by both allies and adversaries alike.
Proving Current Speed Threshold As Insufficient A Hurdle For House Bill: Consultant
A House bill raising the minimum connectivity threshold will need to convince lawmakers it is necessary, Steve Perry says.
April 20, 2021—A proposed Democratic House bill, introduced last month that would increase the speed threshold for served communities, will need to sell the idea that the current bar for speed is insufficient, especially as the pandemic has made broadband availability a central issue, according to a government consultant.
The bill would create new categories for federal funding on broadband projects. The new definition of “served,” which was previously categorized as areas with access to speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, would be updated to bump up the upload speed to 25 Mbps.
Low-tier would be considered areas with between 25/25 Mbps and 100/100 Mbps speeds, and medium-tier would be viewed as 100/100 Mbps to gigabit symmetrical.
Steve Perry of Perry Bayliss, a government relations firm, said at an event hosted by the Fiber Broadband Association last week that there are several key issues with the legislation that he felt would have to be addressed for it to be successful. First, he believed that while he and many other experts are proponents of 100 Mbps symmetrical service, there is still a significant amount of hesitancy on behalf of some policy makers.
Perry is echoing concerns made by Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly last month in a debate on the bill. O’Rielly argued that the bill’s threshold parameters would be a tough sell because the upload speed increase would exceed consumer needs. It would also lead to subsidized overbuilding because “most of the nation does not meet the new definition,” O’Rielly argued.
The build would, at its baseline, elevate the minimum upload speed threshold from 3 Mbps to 25 Mbps, making it symmetrical with the download speed.
Perry pointed to a contingent of policy makers that believe 25 Mbps download/three Mbps upload is sufficient. “We have a lot of work to do to overcome this question of whether what we consider to be inferior broadband service is adequate.” He added that this is especially important given the strains added during the pandemic, where everyone is utilizing broadband services more than ever before.
Mapping and overbuilding concerns
Perry also said that the mapping of underserved areas needs to be improved. He said that this has led to many Republicans criticizing the plan, stating that the administration “has put the cart before the horse.” Perry stated that the administration should not move forward on the plan until it has addressed these mapping shortcomings, because otherwise they would be spending money before they even know where the money ought to be allocated to.
A third issue Perry identified was overbuilding. For areas that already have minimal broadband investment, small broadband providers would now potentially be competing with a federally subsidized, municipal service. Perry referred to this as “unleashing investment,” and stated that this is again a sticking point for Republicans, who by and large would leave the development up to private companies.
A number of states currently have restrictions in place to restrict municipal broadband bills. This month, Washington state announced it would be rolling back restrictions on such bills. Meanwhile, some Republican representatives have pushed a proposed anti-municipal network bill in Congress.
Gary Bolton: Satellite’s Polite Conceit of Unserved/Underserved
“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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