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

Liana Sowa

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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.

Universal Service

Experts Concerned About Connectivity After Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund Runs Dry

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from CCA event

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.

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Rural

Invest In Local Communities, Center on Rural Innovation Urges Telecom Companies

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Matt Dunne from the webinar

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.

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Rural

Debate About Fiber Versus Wireless for Rural Broadband Deployments Continues to Percolate

Tim White

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Screenshot from Broadband Breakfast Live Online

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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