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Advocates for Rural Broadband Providers Commiserate on Flaws in Federal Approach to Funding

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Screenshot of participants in the Thursday afternoon session at NTCA's virtual event

September 23, 2020 – Individuals representing different facets of rural broadband – traditional telecom companies, rural electric utilities, wireless providers and state regulators – on Thursday voiced concerns about aspects of the federal government’s rural broadband programs.

Many of these players have run into difficulty in spite of promised federal funding, they said during the third day of the virtual event of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association. They also vented frustrations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, as well as the Federal Communications Commission.

“We were disappointed when [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] came along and the FCC said at the last minute that anywhere that’s gotten state funds is off the map for the RDOF,” said Brian O’Hara, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“A lot of times the state funds aren’t enough to build a network,” O’Hara continued. “They’re not a big pot of money, so if they could get extra money to give those levels a higher level of service, it just makes sense” to include state and federal funds together.

O’Hara said that 32 electric coops won bids for about $30 million in the prior Connect America Fund, Phase II, auction that took place in 2018.

“Since the last auction there’s been three times as much demand for [rural broadband] auctions, so we need more,” said O’Hara.

Steve Coran of Lerman Senter, which works with wireless internet providers said “some of our members have successfully obtained state money through the CARES Act” that was relatively free from bureaucratic strings. That is not the case with the Connect America Fund or the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, he said.

He added that wireless providers who have applied for Reconnect money “aren’t very happy.”

“My personal view is there’s a little bit of a bias for those who have traditionally been in front of RUS and proposed fiber builds and I’ve seen a lot of that money going to the co-ops,” said Coran.

Yet he praised the Connect America Fund process of the FCC as “open[ing] the door for a ton of private investment to come into our members.”

States such as South Dakota and Nebraska have also looked to the government for funding.

“In 2019 the governor of South Dakota asked the legislature for an appropriation to provide state money for a broadband program, and it was very successful,” said Chris Nelson, public utilities commissioner for South Dakota.

Nebraska has taken a different approach, creating their own state universal service fund. This fund collects a fee from all telephone users in the state.

Crystal Rhoades, a Nebraska Public Service Commissioner, said that her agency used FCC Forum 477 data to determine and analyze where to spend state funds.

There are many issues still facing rural broadband providers.

Rhoades said that because of the high cost for deploying rural broadband, there are policy disagreements on whether to use fiber or fixed wireless, as well as debate on whether state and federal funds “should be given for ongoing operational expenses versus capital expenditures for further deployment.”

Reporter Liana Sowa grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. She studied editing and publishing as a writing fellow at Brigham Young University, where she mentored upperclassmen on neuroscience research papers. She enjoys reading and journaling, and marathon-runnning and stilt-walking.

Rural

FCC Announces $163 Million in Second Round of Approved RDOF Funding

The agency is reevaluating winning bids after asking providers to ensure census blocks aren’t already served.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday another approved round of funding from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The $163 million in approved money will go to 42 providers who will drive fiber to the home for gigabit services covering 65,000 locations in 21 states over the next ten years, the FCC said Thursday.

“More help is on the way to households without broadband,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a press release Thursday. “This is an important program for getting more Americans connected to high-speed internet, and we are continuing careful oversight of this process to ensure that providers meet their obligations to deploy in areas that need it.”

The FCC in July asked that providers conduct an assessment in areas for which they won money from the fund in December, because complaints emerged that the approved areas were already served with adequate connectivity.

The commission said 85 bidders chose not to pursue their bids in 5,089 census blocks because those areas were either served or could be wasted. Some attributed their enlightenment to updated FCC maps based on Form 477 data, an often criticized form of data collection that is reliant on service provider data.

The last round of approved money was last month, when the FCC approved a further 13 bidders.

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Rural

Varying Technologies Needed to Make Widespread Public Library Wi-Fi a Reality

From direct fiber connections to low-earth orbit satellites, libraries can provide public Wi-Fi through varying means.

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Don Means from the Gigabit Libraries Network.

WASHINGTON, October 4, 2021 – The director of the Libraries Whitespace Project said libraries across the country will need varying ways to get connected and provide access to public Wi-Fi.

That means that 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,” Don Means said Friday, other solutions will need to be considered where geography doesn’t allow for a direct fiber connection.

“Every community is a unique combination of density, topology, socioeconomics, existing infrastructure and also available spectrum and then whatever the local policy preferences are,” said Means, who was hosted by the Gigabit Libraries Network hosted as part of Libraries in Response series on Friday.

There is no one size fits all solution to connectivity, Means said. But vendors, he said, are often concerned with selling a single solution for the simple reason that it’s more efficient and profitable to do so.

A technology still in its infancy is low-earth orbit satellites for broadband, which hover closer to earth than traditional satellites and thus theoretically provide better connectivity than those flying higher above the earth’s surface. The first library in the world connected through LEO satellites is a tribal library located in northern New Mexico, Means said, noting that such technologies could help fill the connectivity gap.

SpaceX’s Starlink is racing to make its broadband constellation of LEOs a staple of rural and urban connectivity, as it has been beta testing its technology for months now.

Means added that some free Wi-Fi hotspots have served to cover entire communities.

“We talk about rural in terms of density, and we use the numbers of countywide density, people per square mile across the county, which is really low,” he said.

“But when you look at where people really live, most rural people live close together in small communities. It might be a mile or two across… which means that these few hotspots across town could cover the whole town.”

He used the example of the town of Plymouth, Nebraska, which set up a handful of these Wi-Fi access stations for $17,000 and gave the entire rural community access to the internet.

The GLN began the series in response to the pandemic, which made clear that broadband, connectivity, and the internet are fundamental to the nation’s wellbeing.

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Rural

Christopher Ali’s New Book Dissects Failures of Rural Broadband Policy and Leadership

“Farm Fresh Broadband” explains the world of broadband policy and provides solutions to bridge the digital divide.

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WASHINGTON, September 24, 2021—In his most recent book, University of Virginia Professor Christopher Ali argues that the ongoing battle for improved connectivity is not only far from over, but also critically flawed.

“Farm Fresh Broadband” proposes a new approach to national rural broadband policy to narrow the rural-urban digital divide. In Ali’s view, the lack of coordinated, federal leadership and a failure to recognize the roles that local communities and municipalities need to play in the deployment of broadband has contributed to a lack of competition between carriers, and ultimately, higher costs to consumers.

Just two days after it was released, Ali sat down for a video interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark to discuss his story – and Ali’s recommendations that resulted from his journey.

Ali raises the question about How the $6 billion in federal funds allocated to broadband is spent annually? Based on his findings, he makes policy recommendations to democratize rural broadband policy architecture and re-model it after the historic efforts to bring telephony services and electricity to Americans across the country.

In particular, Ali discusses how, in one chapter of his book, he raises the provocative question about whether “Good Is the Enemy of Great: The Four Failures of Rural Broadband Policy.” In his telling, less money, lower speed, and poor-quality broadband mapping have all contributed to an approach that, in seeking “good enough,” federal policy has failed Rural America.

Ali, an associate professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is also the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World” (Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2017)

“Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity” available at the MIT Press.

See Professor Ali’s recent Expert Opinion for Broadband Breakfast, “Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

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