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Electrical Cooperatives Are the Unsung Heroes of Rural Broadband, Say Broadband Breakfast Panelists

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February 18, 2021— Electrical cooperatives that own their own fiber are filling in the broadband gaps that telecoms have left, said panelists at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

The locally-owned businesses that have traditionally only provided electricity are now owning their own fiber and using their existing electrical infrastructure to drive home broadband to their local communities.

“A lot of [electric cooperatives] are starting to deploy some fiber to support their electric operations,” said Brian O’Hara, senior director for regulatory issues with the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association.

He stated that this is a win for both the providers and the consumers as their coverage continues to expand.

Traditionally, telecoms must rent space on the electrical poles on which they sling their fiber cables; those deals often require negotiations. With cooperatives now owning both the broadband means and the method to deliver them, it can cut down the time to deliver much-needed internet services.

Screenshot of NRECA Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs Brian O’Hara from Broadband Breakfast Live Online

O’Hara also noted that while these local providers cover 56 percent of the landmass of the U.S., they only serve around 12 percent of the population. O’Hara explained that this low population density contributes to a higher cost of infrastructure, as the cost to build is proportionally greater than the return from the few people who use the services.

Mark DeFalco, telecommunications initiative manager at the Appalachian Regional Commission, said the federal government is beginning to take the expansion of rural broadband more seriously, and is using programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Rural Utility Service’s Reconnect Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a $300 million grant to expand broadband coverage to underserved communities.

Electrical cooperatives a ‘game changer’

He also pointed to smaller groups that are also pitching in, such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Northern Borders Regional Commission, and Delta Regional Authority. As a program manager for the ARC, DeFalco said that he is excited to work with rural electrical cooperatives.

“It’s a game changer for rural America,” he said.

Christopher Ali, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, emphasized the role of local electrical cooperatives in ensuring that rural Americans are provided with broadband, going so far as to refer to them as “the unsung heroes of rural broadband.”

“They’re emerging as a distinct kind of local ethos,” he said, adding that because they often live in or around the communities they serve, they are often more committed to fulfilling their obligations. This kind of accountability is not something that larger, corporate providers can offer.

Ali continued by adding that the fixed wireless providers should consider RDOF a huge victory and that is ultimately a win for rural consumers.

Problems with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

However, Ali criticized components of RDOF . He said he was critical of a provision of the fund that stated that providers that received state funding would be ineligible for RDOF.

“It should not be one or the other,” he stated, “We need to adopt an all-hands-on deck approach to solving the digital divide and accessibility in rural America.”

O’Hara said that the current standard for download and upload speeds are not sufficient. “We need to be aiming higher,” he said. “Truthfully, we believe that fiber is the way to go” he added, noting that despite the increased cost, fiber would be the best way to meet the current and projected demand.

DeFalco ended on a positive note, and said that the U.S. has come far in its quest to expand coverage, “When I started traveling Appalachia, I had to plug into the telephone and do dial up,” He concluded, “Now, no matter where I go—no matter what hotel I go to—there’s wireless broadband.”

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As a child of American parents working abroad, Reporter Ben Kahn was raised as a third culture kid, growing up in five different countries, including the U.S.. He is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore, where he majored in Policy, Politics, and International Affairs. He enjoys learning about foreign languages and cultures and can now speak poorly in more than one language.

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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