June 17, 2020 — The bidding process to secure a portion of the Federal Communications Commission’s $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is already underway. But what if your bid is one of those not chosen to receive a piece of the FCC’s rural broadband pie?
A number of broadband funding opportunities currently exist beyond what is expected to be an extremely competitive process for the FCC’s rural funding. These other opportunities should alleviate the worry that bidders have about failing to be selected, said speakers at a Tuesday webinar hosted by the Broadband Bunch.
The FCC is only one of multiple sources distributing broadband funding since the COVID-19 pandemic proved the universally essential nature of internet access. Other federal entities, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Economic Development Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce, offer further funding opportunities.
The USDA has subsidized two initiatives, ReConnect Loan and Grant Program and Community Connect Grants, in order to supply funding for rural broadband initiatives.
To date, the agency has invested $744,303,168 in high-speed broadband infrastructure, which is expected to improve rural connectivity for customers across 34 states.
Additionally, Congress’ Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided an additional $1.5 billion in funds through the Economic Development Administration of the Commerce Department. These funds help communities respond to coronavirus.
A number of state and local funding opportunities are also becoming available. To further assist in closing the digital divide, states have been developing their own broadband grant programs and initiatives. Thirty states now have grant programs that play an important role in funding broadband deployment strategies.
When considering infrastructure funding strategies, all available state, local and federal options should be considered, said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy.
“It may even be possible to combine federal and state funding opportunities,” said Hovis. “Think about RDOF as something that can be layered with other opportunities.”
Hovis compared and contrasted the various funding options, noting that while local and state funds tend to be smaller in total dollar amount, they are typically more flexible and focus more on the demands of local communities.
While funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund goes directly to service providers, funding from other initiatives goes directly to municipalities, which gives them more say in their cities’ digital future.
Local and state funds often have unique aspects, such as funding for unserved areas ineligible for federal grants, funding for partially served areas or funding for areas that have received federal funding previously.
“The economic challenges we face may slow down the growth of these state and local programs, but the level of commitment to fund rural broadband initiatives is at an all-time high,” said Hovis.
Experts Concerned About Connectivity After Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund Runs Dry
April 1, 2021 – Experts are concerns about the long-term implications of the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program (EBB) running out of money without a plan for what happens after.
The fund, created by Congress in December, provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet. The fund will cease when all the money is used up or within six months, whichever happens sooner.
Clare Liedquist Andonov, principal at Herman and Whiteaker, LLC, said Wednesday during the CCA mobile carriers show that if all people on Lifeline — an older FCC program that provides monthly discounts for eligible low-income subscribers for internet and telephone services – subscribe to the fund, the money will “be exhausted within about four months.”
John Nakahata, partner at Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis LLP, said both the EBB and Emergency Connectivity programs are simply short-term stimulus plans that are not designed to last long.
Andonov said she is concerned about what happens after such funding ceases to exist. “What happens after four months?” she asked. “Do you disconnect those people?” She said the infrastructure built to connect people online in the first place would go to waste if the EBB program ceased operations in a matter of months, alongside the administrative costs to run the program.
To combat the expenditure of EBB funding in the mere four months projected by Andonov, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced comprehensive bicameral broadband infrastructure legislation on March 12 to expand access to affordable high-speed internet for all Americans.
“In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code,” said a press release from Klobuchar’s office. “This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.” If passed, Cole said it would allow the EBB program to last for an entire year; but even then, one year is not enough, they say, as broadband should be accessible for people indefinitely.
To address this challenge, there is some $100 billion set for recently-introduced broadband infrastructure bills being considered in Congress. That money is spread between three bills that would change the nation’s definition of served and unserved people with broadband by dramatically upping the threshold for broadband speeds.
Invest In Local Communities, Center on Rural Innovation Urges Telecom Companies
March 11, 2021 – The Center on Rural Innovation is recommending telecom companies engage with local communities and invest in hyper-local programs.
Speaking at the second general session of the National Rural Broadband Association last month, Matt Dunne, executive director at the Center on Rural Innovation, said broadband players can power digital economies by investing in shared office spaces and accelerator programs like that of Springfield, Vermont’s.
He said providing in-kind bandwidth and Wi-Fi routers would go to supporting the local community.
He advocated for promoting tech culture initiatives for customers and encouraged broadband players to have a bigger role in being involved in the community as a friendly player.
Springfield has partnered with Black River Innovation Campus to build a digital entrepreneurship program and campus powered by 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) speed broadband.
Catered to the Vermont lifestyle, Black River offers programs and certificates that teach about remote work, local workforce development, and youth coding clubs and camps.
In addition to promoting digital workforce resources and culture building, Black River has produced two startups which the Center on Rural Innovation Fund has made investments in since its beginning.
Debate About Fiber Versus Wireless for Rural Broadband Deployments Continues to Percolate
March 4, 2021 – Amid claims that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund chose winners that may not be able to fulfill their broadband commitments, Vantage Point CEO Larry Thompson said his whitepaper contributing to the discussion wasn’t intended to be critical but to figure out what’s best for quick deployment.
During Fiber Broadband Association’s event on Wednesday, Thompson clarified his whitepaper, which this publication covered in a story on Wednesday, wasn’t intended to be criticize what does or doesn’t work, but to examine what is the “right tool for the job.” He noted that part of the consideration is how much bandwidth consumers will need years down the road, not just now.
The paper effectively doubted the claim that fixed-wireless technologies can deliver gigabit speeds in rural areas. The prevailing and predominant thought in the industry is that a direct fiber line is indispensable for the fastest speeds. Fixed-wireless instead uses radio frequency technologies to deliver broadband to the home for the last mile.
“There are significant technical (and related economic) questions that must be confronted in delivering Gigabit broadband using fixed wireless technologies in the predominantly rural areas covered by RDOF,” the paper read.
“Fixed wireless networks will face difficult, if not insurmountable, challenges to provide RDOF Gigabit services in very select circumstances when attempting to service distant, non‐town rural subscribers that were primarily the subject of the RDOF auction,” the paper reads.
Those claims have spilled-over into a full-blown public event, with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association responding to critics of the FCC’s choice for recipients of the $9.2 billion RDOF fund, which was determined based on a lowest-bidder reverse auction model.
Thompson’s clarification came on the same day that Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online debate considered RDOF and the opportunities and challenges with both fiber and fixed-wireless technologies.
The criticism of the wireless beneficiaries of RDOF was met with resistance.
Brian Regan, vice president of legal, policy and strategy at Starry Inc., an RDOF winner, said there will always be criticism of the process after the fact.
He also expressed faith in the FCC’s ability to manage the front end of the auction and reward the money to the right bidders.
FiberSmith’s CEO Donny Smith agreed with Regan, saying that the RDOF auction was controversial because there was so much money involved. At the end of the day, RDOF will bring more broadband to more Americans, which is a good thing, he said.
Regan said Starry is focused on expanding broadband to as many people as possible, and sees the new funding as an “effective solution to bring service to places where it doesn’t exist.”
Fixed-wireless can achieve gigabit connections with the latest tests from 5G providers, he said.
Winning an FCC auction is just the first step, and the panelists discussed the design and development of expanding broadband into rural areas.
Wireless broadband is not a permanent solution, Smith said, but can be much more cost effective.
But mapping data needs to be accurate, Smith and Regan said. Before networks can be built, Regan said there needs to be accurate broadband mapping data so we know where they’re needed and what can be built.
Good geographic information system data vital to planning and executing networks
Having good geographic information system data is vital to building a broadband network, agreed Sandeep Dhingra, chief technology officer of network services at Sterlite Technologies Limited, which has years of experience building broadband infrastructure outside the United States.
Dhingra also highlighted the importance of digitizing and automating the GIS to keep accurate data. Companies need to do it right the first time so that they are not redoing things over and over, he said.
He also said that every network is ultimately a hybrid of both wired and wireless infrastructure, because fiber or cable must be laid to reach the towers that send out wireless signals.
Smith raised a potential issue with materials and labor, which are in limited supply, especially right now with COVID-19. If companies haven’t planned ahead for these logistics, they’re going to have problems down the road, he said.
The FCC stipulated that RDOF winners are required to have service up and running for at least 40 percent of their winning coverage area within three years, and 20 percent additional coverage each subsequent year, reaching full service within six years.
Some inefficiencies can be mitigated with effective design and planning, Dhingra said. He mentioned using drones for surveying and utilizing local manpower as two examples.
Another challenge can be dealing with state and local municipalities, Smith said. While some local authorities will bend over backwards to help you out because they see the value of getting better broadband to their residents, other authorities will do everything in their power to make your work more difficult, he said.
As tensions rise between local governments and telecom companies about attached to poles, companies need to build relationships with local municipalities as much as possible so that they both understand their shared goals, Dhingra added.
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