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Rural

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.”

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FCC

FCC Commissioner Supports Rural Telco Efforts to Implement ‘Rip and Replace’

In remarks at the Rural Wireless Association event on Wednesday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks reaffirmed the FCC’s goals.

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Photo of Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, leading a discussion at the summit on Wednesday by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 30, 2022 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks acknowledged the agency’s goal of obtaining secure broadband networks at an event of the Rural Wireless Association on Wednesday.

“We must ensure that our broadband networks are secure,” Starks said in keynote address at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here, delivered via Zoom. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks of American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

Starks continued, “insecure networks, by definition, can’t provide the stable, reliable, always on communications we need. Especially during emergencies… Broadband must be secure for the full benefits of broadband to be achieved.”

The issue of ridding American telecommunications networks of equipment manufactured in China was a constant theme during the conference.

In addition to Starks’ presentation, several sessions addressed the dilemma faced by telecommunications carriers, particular rural ones, that had in the past invested heavily in lower-cost equipment from Huawei, a leading Chinese manufacturer.

As the political winds have changed on the topic over the past three years, Congress has allocated funds for a “rip and replace” program. The FCC is expected to announce the providers that will receive nearly $2 billion as part of the program by July 15.

But some fear that number could be more than $4 billion short of needed funds.

“The funds available will cover only a very small portion” of the costs to replace Huawei with non-Chinese manufacturers, said Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association.

Potential new requirements imposed on telecom providers

The commission recently sought comment on whether it should require carriers that receive high-cost support to have include baseline cyber security and supply chain risk management plans.

If these plans are included in requirements, Starks said that American communication networks would be protected from bad actors. Moreover, they are consistent with requirements already included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Starks thanked the RWA for its activity and advocacy in the “rip and replace” proceedings, officially dubbed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program.

“The threat is real,” called Starks. “Companies that are deemed by the federal government to be a threat to the United States and its people can not have free reign in data centers featuring some of the most sensitive data of Americans.”

This comes only days after Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove Beijing-based popular video-sharing application, TikTok, from their app stores in response to the apps’ obligation to comply with the Peoples Republic of China’s surveillance demands.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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Rural

USDA Considering Drawing on Infrastructure Bill Money as ReConnect Demand Increases

The USDA has been allocated $2 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

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Screenshot of Christopher McLean and Drew Clark at Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2022 – The acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service said Wednesday that his office has seen so much interest in the third round for its broadband funds that it is considering drawing on other federal infrastructure funds to satisfy demand.  

Christopher McLean, who joined Broadband Breakfast for its weekly event Wednesday, said the latest round for money from the ReConnect program received 305 applications requesting a total of $4.8 billion, but the program allocated only $1.15 billion for the round.   

McLean said that while his office is currently evaluating the applications, it is also now considering drawing on the $2 billion the office was allocated under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to meet the demand for builds intended to connect the underserved. 

“We made an announcement that because as more funds had become available, we would reserve the right to apply additional funds to that $1.15 billion funding pool. We got far more applications than we had dollars in that initial allotment,” said McLean.

Photo of Christopher McLean and Drew Clark at Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

McLean added that the USDA is expecting to announce winners for the third round this summer and is preparing to announce an additional fourth round.

In a keynote speech in Fiber Connect 2020, Chad Rupe, administrator for the RUS said that “the USDA’s RUS offers one of the cheapest, most reliable sources of capital.” 

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can also join LIVE ONLINE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Zoom.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 12 Noon ET — Preparing for Federal Broadband Funding with the Rural Utilities Service’s Christopher McLean

Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark will host Christopher McLean, Acting Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service  for a fireside chat about broadband funding, including the ReConnect program, RUS’s long-standing mandate to improve rural telecommunications, electric and broadband infrastructure, and the way other federal programs will interact with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:

  • Christopher McLean, Acting Administrator, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service
  • Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

In addition to serving as the Acting Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, Christopher McLean also serves as the Assistant Administrator for Electric Programs at the RUS. He was named to that position on January 11, 2015. This is Chris’ third time at the agency. As AAE, Chris presides over a $46 billion loan portfolio. In recent years the RUS annual lending budget has been in excess of $5 billion. The agency makes low interest loans for rural electric infrastructure, renewable energy, smart grid and energy efficiency. Prior to his return to RUS, Chris was the Acting Director of the Program Planning and Accountability Division of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture. He came to OASCR in 2013 as civil rights fellow in the Policy Office. From 2010-2012, Chris served as a senior advisor to the Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service. Chris was in private practice from 2001-2010. He was the co-owner of e-Copernicus, a consulting firm that specialized in telecommunications, transportation and technology policy. Chris is also the former Executive Director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition. He is also is a former RUS Administrator and former Governor of the Rural Telephone Bank. He was appointed Deputy Administrator in January 1998. In 2000, he was the first person nominated and confirmed for the position of RUS Administrator. He hails from Omaha, Nebraska. He received an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University in 1985, a J.D. from Creighton University School of Law in 1982, and a degree in Business Administration from Creighton University in 1980.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

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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Rural

Local Governments Provide Valuable Information for Rural Infrastructure Builds

Rural communities vary in broadband needs, making community engagement essential for breaching the digital divide.

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Photo of Scott Woods, Josh Seidemann, Jerry Kuthy and Bob Knight (left to right) by Teralyn Whippe

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2022 – A critical first step to delivering on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for rural communities at a local level is community engagement and understanding, panelists said at a Tuesday event of the Local Initiative Support Corporation.

As a local leader in a rural community “the first thing to do is a community survey,” said Josh Seidemann, vice president of policy at NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association.

Seidemann and other panelists provided advice on what local communities need to do to be successful in applications under the IIJA. The process is expected to kick off upon release of rules from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The agency must release rules under the IIJA by May 16.

A community survey will help “determine and evaluate where your community needs broadband the most,” said Seidemann. Such a survey is “going to inform and illuminate the type of network that will best meet your needs.”

Community needs can vary due to topography and existing infrastructure available for use. “Make sure your network meets your community needs,” added Bob Knight, CEO of public relations agency Harrison Edwards and a local government official in Connecticut. He is co-chair of Fiber Broadband Association’s public officials group. “The best projects have an element of community engagement.”

Jerry Kuthy, Program Officer at Cameron Foundation, urged local leaders to create a mapping system of their individual geographical broadband needs.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development launched an interactive broadband coverage map in April of 2022. Kuthy said the map will help local leaders in Virginia roll out funding for rural broadband infrastructure.

Mapping areas of focus for broadband projects has long been the focus for state and regional leaders, in part because so many people have expressed disappointment at previous FCC broadband mapping efforts.

LISC is an intermediary non-profit that connects public and private resources with underinvested places. The role of Community Development Financial Institutions was also discussed at the event.

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