December 22, 2020 — With the closing of the bidding in Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse-auction, many across the country are beginning to initiate groundwork for the federally-supported networks that will be deployed or expanded over the next 10 years.
To detail best practices for 180 new winning bidders, in Phase I of RDOF, a panel of network construction experts joined moderator Drew Clark, editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast, in the most recent Tools for Broadband virtual session, a five-part Broadband Breakfast Live Online series.
Awardees preparing and planning their future deployments spoke about a range of topics, from preparing for material shortages and backlogs, to managing crews. The panel detailed many things necessary to know in order to roll out a new construction project with the least amount of stress.
“A lot of federal money being awarded, means a lot of construction work is underway,” said Lori Sherwood, director of commercial and market development at Render Networks. She said that it was the panelists’ “jobs as stewards to manage these projects effectively.”
Three-step process for first-time network builders
Greg Santaro, senior vice president of chief marketing and strategy officer at the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, detailed the three-step process his organization recommends for new network constructors.
Santaro recommended starting with a feasibility study, which is essentially a “high level view of all the different elements and costs necessary to build a network.” The feasibility study lays out what the project is going to take, but is “not something to base a budget on.”
After drafting the project overview, NRTC recommends entities create a far more detailed executive project plan. According to Santaro, EPPs are a more budget-oriented and detailed, and give much more specifics and alignment with project costs.
Finally, NRTC recommends that constructors track their ongoing budgets, as costs are likely to change throughout multi-year construction processes.
In addition to providing build-out strategies, panelists warned the winning bidders of things to watch out for throughout the construction process, including projected material shortages and rising material and labor costs.
“Resource constraints are real,” said Ryan McCowan, director of costumer engagement and solutions at ADTRAN, adding that fiber builders in the United Kingdom are experiencing similar constraints, as the build-out of fiber has exploded domestically over past years.
Sherwood prepared bidders for the ongoing budgeting required when building networks, saying that over the next “6 to 8 years the costs for everything is going to increase” annually. “As an industry we need to look at where we can find efficiencies and build,” said Sherwood.
Edward Barrett, vice president and practice leader at HR Green’s Fiber and Broadband Practice, warned RDOF recipients not to use ‘averages’ throughout the planning process, saying that individuals using industry pricing averages in feasibility studies gave them “a bad rep within the industry.”
Events in “Tools for Broadband Deployment” series, which is sponsored by ADTRAN and Render Networks, include:
- Wednesday, October 21, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “Tools for Broadband Deployment: Preparing for Success”
- Are you ready for rural deployment? The United States is currently in the midst of multiple, significant efforts pushing for Better Broadband for Rural America. Think of the big picture opportunity.
- Wednesday, November 25, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “Tools for Broadband Deployment: Connecting Providers and Customers Faster”
- Case studies of network-building with an all-digital workflow. How fiber-builders are finding success in construction management, workflow processes and on-the-fly changes. In a phrase: Think workflow and business systems.
- Wednesday, December 16, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “Tools for Broadband Deployment: RDOF and Other Rural Broadband Deployments”
- The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Connect America Fund and other rural deployments: How new awardees are laying the future for managing their deployments. Think managing your budget.
- Wednesday, January 27, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “Tools for Broadband Deployment: Mapping the Rural Broadband Buildout”
- Mapping broadband assets is only the first step. This session will explore how end-to-end data is showing that successful rural fiber networks begin with the end in the mind. Think broadband mapping.
- Wednesday, February 3, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “Tools for Broadband: Fueling the Fire of Rural Innovation”
- We’ll showcase how broadband deployment is accelerating the digital future for rural America at a time of COVID-19. Think success.
“Tools for Broadband Deployment” is sponsored by:
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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