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Former FCC Commissioners Disagree on Bill Increasing Broadband Speed Thresholds for Funding

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Photo of Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler taken during the hearing

March 23, 2021 – A former Federal Communications Commissioner and a former chairman of the agency exchanged disagreements Monday over a large broadband funding bill re-introduced in the House of Representatives on March 11.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee virtual hearing on the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America (LIFT) Act, Mike O’Rielly and Tom Wheeler expressed opposing views on the broadband portion of the bill, which would provide up to $100 billion in funding for expanding broadband access across the country.

“I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I say this is a once-in-a-generation, maybe once-in-a-century, opportunity,” Wheeler said, defending the broadband initiatives in the bill.

The legislation creates a new ‘build-it-once’ plan to deliver broadband and will finally stop the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of billions of dollars with limited results, he said. “Solving the rural broadband problem once and for all, requires supporting the build out the same way we build highways—pay once,” he said.

But O’Rielly said there are a host of issues with the bill and it needs major revisions. There is no dispute that millions of Americans still lack access to broadband, he said, and there are two ways to get them connected: First, targeted subsidy programs for those unserved areas and ignore areas that are already served; second, barriers to private sector deployment must be reduced or completely eliminated, he said.

Michael O’Rielly takes issue with high broadband speeds

“While I appreciate the interest of some to future-proof networks, I disagree with the extensive funding and out-of-touch definition of broadband,” O’Rielly said. “For instance, the push for symmetrical speeds at exorbitant levels, such as 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps), makes little sense,” he said.

The LIFT America Act, incorporating Rep. James Clyburn’s Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, would raise the FCC’s current threshold definition of served areas from 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload minimum to 25/25 symmetrical speed for low-tier service and 100/100 Mbps symmetrical for mid-tier service.

See “Broadband Breakfast Panelists Wrestle With the Speed Definition of High-Speed Broadband,” Broadband Breakfast, March 18, 2021

O’Rielly’s chief criticism with the updated speeds was on the upload side, which he said far exceeded consumer needs. “A 100-megabit upload speed does not reflect reality for now or any time soon,” he said.

“Such a push for an inflated broadband speed will lead to a gigantic level of subsidized overbuilding, since most of the nation does not meet the new definition,” O’Rielly said. He emphasized that ‘overbuilding’ leads to a competitive broadband market, distinguishing it from subsidized overbuilding, which he said is bad because public money should focus on getting broadband to unserved areas.

The dollars would go to areas that are easier to serve and more well-to-do than for Americans who don’t actually have broadband today, he said, so it would push unserved Americans to the back of the line.

Wheeler disagreed. “Everybody gets the same opportunity to bring their service up to the kinds of levels that the vast majority of America enjoys,” he said. “The excuse that somehow unserved areas are going to the back of the line is just a figment. You run an auction, and you say, ‘Y’all come!’ And everybody gets the opportunity to come to participate in that auction,” he said.

Priority should be on fiber, says Wheeler

Eighty percent of Americans have access to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) service, Wheeler said, referring to data from NCTA, an Internet and Television Association. Private capital didn’t build that capacity to waste money but to meet demand, he said.

Public funds have an even higher obligation to spend money wisely, he said, “to prevent 20 percent of Americans from being trapped in second-class service, and to spend tax-payer dollars as wisely as private capital is spent.”

To connect the other 20 percent of Americans to high-speed broadband means building with fiber and hybrid fiber-coax, Wheeler said. Build with fiber once so that we don’t have to come back and build again later, he said. If we want to use the money wisely, we should do it in the same way that companies are spending wisely, which is to build fiber, he said.

O’Rielly countered that most people don’t care which technology delivers broadband to them, as long as it meets their needs. There should be a laser focus on getting Americans connected who are unserved today through current programs, he said, because the updated speed thresholds in the LIFT America Act would drastically increase the number of unserved Americans.

Impact on broadband mapping

The LIFT America Act would also impact the new FCC’s broadband mapping, because once the Digital Opportunity Data Collection fabric is implemented, the maps would need to be redone using the updated speed thresholds, said O’Rielly.

But the broadband maps wouldn’t need to be redone, Wheeler replied. The maps aren’t a static object like an actual map, he said, but rather is a database system that is constantly evolving.

Broadband maps are static in the sense that they represent the data at the current time, O’Rielly said. Updating the speed thresholds means the data would need to be recollected and reanalyzed, he said.

Infrastructure

Utilities Coalition Warns Against Shifting Cost of Replacing Poles

‘Utilities have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it.’

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Photo of linemen on a pole from 2015 by Lisa Meiman

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2023 – A coalition consisting of 37 electric utility companies serving 31 million households is warning the Federal Communications Commission that shifting the cost burden of replacing wood poles to house communications equipment onto utilities will make them less likely to take voluntary action to help telecoms expand.

The Coalition of Concern Utilities said in a letter Thursday that the FCC’s current study into whether it should order utilities to share in the cost of replacing poles should factor what those utilities have been doing on a voluntary basis – “prematurely” replacing their poles for telecoms despite it diverting resources from “system reliability, grid modernization and clean energy initiatives.

“Despite these disincentives to prematurely replacing poles for communications companies, utilities for four decades have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it,” the letter said.

Traditionally, pole owners can invoice to a telecommunications company the cost of replacing the entire pole if it feels the equipment to be attached would warrant it.

The coalition added that submissions to the commission to “modify this longstanding, carefully balanced and successful cost reimbursement mechanism would cause many utilities to reconsider, for the first time in four decades, whether dropping everything to perform voluntary and premature pole replacements is worth the time, effort and expense.”

Shifting even some part of the cost to the utilities would likely be absorbed by them, the coalition argues, because the utilities will be “hard-pressed” to justify to state utility commissions “how pole replacements solely necessitate by communications attacher requests is a benefit to electric rate payers.”

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Broadband Mapping & Data

NTIA Working on State Guidance for Further Map Challenges After BEAD Allocation: Official

An agency official said states have asked for guidance on how to handle local challenges.

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Photo of NTIA Senior Policy Advisor Sarah Morris at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2023 — A senior advisor to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said Thursday that the Commerce Department agency is working on crafting guidance for states about how to approach local map challenges after it allocates the $42.5 billion from its flagship broadband program. 

The NTIA is preparing to allocate money to the states from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, following the closing of the deadline Friday to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s maps on which that funding is dependent. The agency, which has already decided on a base of $100 million for each state, has said it expects to allocate all remaining funds by June 30. 

Sarah Morris, a senior advisor to NTIA head Alan Davidson who was expected to appear at the Conference of Mayors Thursday but could not – said the agency has fielded questions from state officials about how to handle local challenges to the underlying data – including areas that are served and unserved – that props up the FCC’s map. 

“The states have had a lot of questions about how to do this and we are working on guidance for them,” Morris said to a conference room containing mayors from cities across the country. “So we appreciate your [mayors] input as well as we’re thinking through how much guidance and what type of guidance…as states come up with their own state challenge process.” 

Morris added that the NTIA knows there are a lot of other data sources that determine served and unserved areas and that the states will have “more flexibility” in the challenge process, as the FCC is generally constrained by legislation for mapping data. 

What cities can do now for BEAD preparation

Morris also advised cities on what to do now to prepare for when the BEAD allocations are made. 

“Document the connectivity challenges in your communities…we want to make sure those needs are reflected in the five-year plan,” she said, alluding to the applications for BEAD funding. 

She also urged, as many before her have, for the mayors to meet with their state broadband offices, which she called the “center of gravity” for federal broadband funding.  

Finally, she also asked for the mayors help “spread the word. It’s not easy reaching the unconnected and we want to make sure that folks understand the good work that is possible within these programs and that people feel connected, not just the leaders and politicians in the state, but really the folks on the ground in communities, that they understand what’s happening and feel connected to these programs.” 

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Funding

Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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