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

Tim White

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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

Telecoms Should Actively Build Broadband Infrastructure Through Road Developments

Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist said telecoms should be right there alongside new road builds and improvements.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Garlin Gilchrist via YouTube

April 15, 2021 – Telecom and municipal partnerships should be forged when new roads are built so fiber can be laid as construction begins, Michigan’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said Tuesday.

A good time to expand and improve broadband is when roads are being paved and improved, he said Tuesday at the Connected Nation Telehealth Summit. ISPs can play a larger role during this process and increase competition for consumer benefit as more options become available, he noted.

Beyond physical infrastructure needs, ISPs should work more and better with education and healthcare providers, the conference heard.

Schools, libraries, and all levels of government from local to national need to be aware of their roles and responsibilities to close the digital divide, Gilchrist said.

With no internet, telehealth would be in danger when critical response teams cannot be there in person to tend to a patient’s needs, he said, adding investing in the internet is the same as investing in education and health. No matter your zip code, or where you live, or how bad the pandemic has affected daily life, everyone should have the means to access affordable broadband that actually meets their needs.

“Different partnerships are needed,” said Sarah Tennant, sector development director and cyber initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Gilchrist said he recognized the impact generational racial disparity and inequality had on the lives of people of color in Michigan and across the country. Lack of broadband for people of color can be seen as another form of racial injustice.

In trying to tackle that, he said connecting the underconnected with broadband is a top priority of the state.

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Europe

Openreach Partners With STL For Fiber Build

Openreach aims to get 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by later this decade.

Tim White

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Screenshot of STL's Ankit Agarwal via YouTube

April 14, 2021 – STL, or Sterlite Technologies Limited, announced Wednesday a partnership with Openreach, the United Kingdom’s largest digital network business to expand its “Full Fiber” broadband network across the UK.

STL, a global network designer from India, will provide millions of kilometers of fiber to develop Openreach’s goal of 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by late 2020s.

“This collaboration with Openreach strengthens a 14-year-old technology and supply relationship between the two companies and further reinforces STL’s commitment to the UK market,” the company said in a statement.

Openreach will use STL’s Opticonn solution, a fiber and cable build that the company claims offers better performance and faster installation, according to the release statement. The company will also utilize STL’s new celesta ribbon cable that boasts a capacity of up to 6,912 fibers, the statement added.

“Our Full Fiber network build is going faster than ever. We need partners like STL on board to not only help sustain that momentum, but also to provide the skills and innovation to help us go even further,” Openreach’s Kevin Murphy said in a statement. “We know the network we’re building can deliver a host of social and economic benefits – from boosting UK productivity to enabling more home working and fewer commuting trips – but we’re also trying to make this one of the greenest network builds in the world.”

Ankit Agarwal, CEO of connectivity solutions business at STL, said, “our customized, 5G-ready optical solutions are ideally suited for Openreach’s future-proof network requirements and we believe they will enable next-gen digital experiences for homes and businesses across UK. This partnership will be a major step towards our mission of transforming billions of lives through digital networks,” he said in a statement.

Openreach’s network now reaches 4.5 million premises, offering gigabit-capable connection through a range of competing providers on the network, and the company is building at a rate of about 42 thousand new homes and businesses a week, according to the release.

The UK parliament has set a goal to get 85 percent of UK homes and businesses access to gigabit-speed broadband by 2025. They reported that as of September 2020, 27 percent of UK premises received that connection speed, and 95 percent have access to “superfast broadband” which the government defines as at least 30 megabits per second download speed.

Parliament acknowledged that although “superfast broadband is sufficient for most household needs today, the demand for data-intensive services such as online video streaming is increasing and can push the limits of a superfast broadband connection. The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for widely available and reliable digital connectivity.”

STL is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Fiber

John Curtis, R-Utah, Opens Up About Future of Fiber and Broadband Challenges

Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis speaks about broadband rollout, education and bills more than a year into the pandemic.

Derek Shumway

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Photo of John Curtis from his website

April 13, 2021 – Provo, Utah has made significant progress with its Google Fiber partnership, and representative John Curtis, R-Utah, hopes the federal government is paying attention.

Broadband Breakfast spoke with Curtis on Monday to discuss broadband and the lessons he’s taken from the pandemic. He said that the city of Provo is on track with its broadband efforts and that its programs are working. Having formerly served as city mayor for Provo from 2010 to 2017, Curtis oversaw the purchase by Google Fiber of iProvo, the city’s existing fiber internet network.

Announced in a press release on February 16, two of Curtis’ bills, the Federal Broadband Deployment in Unserved Areas Act, and the Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act of 2021, were introduced to facilitate broadband deployment on federal lands and close the digital divide in both rural and urban areas. The bills called to “streamline permitting presses,” as duplicative regulations and inefficient practices have been hampering broadband development thus far, he said.

Federal, municipal regulations a constraint on deployment

Curtis was asked where he thought unnecessary red tape needed to be removed to fulfill rural and urban broadband objectives. He said 90 percent of the rural land in his district is owned by the federal government, making regulation heavy and complicated. In some instances, public lands have taken up to nine years to allow permitting for broadband, and in broadband terms, that’s a lifetime. “We don’t have nine years to get down into these parts of the district,” he said.

To visualize this, if there is an existing asphalt road, broadband cannot run alongside it because it is treated as if there was trench dug underneath Delicate Arch, a historical rock formation, a regulated territory.  If rural roads are approved to be built, rural broadband should be approved in a similar and appropriate manner, Curtis said. He added companies like Google, who have vast resources, are still slowed down by the government.

And it’s not the federal government that is always behind roadblocks, but the municipal government can sometimes get in the way. A struggle over telecoms putting up equipment on municipal-owned poles, which are required for broadband and wireless deployment, has been playing out across the country.

Education needs support structure at home

As the country is more than one year into the pandemic, the importance of having adequate and affordable broadband in Utah households is critical, especially for education, Curtis said. Curtis said that the more disadvantaged a household is, the less likely it is to have good internet connectivity. While there are tremendous uses for virtual resources, Utah children need a support structure at home, and not every home has that.

Having poor support at home to stay connected for school, work, and health needs is virtually as bad as not even having a device to connect to the internet in the first place. A benefit of having Google Fiber in Provo, Curtis said, is that households see their internet costs come down and speeds go up as competition is benefitting consumers. Cities are averse to risk, and sometimes lack the capital to invest in broadband, but technology changes so fast that it requires constant upkeep, he said.

Not just about the money

Asked about his thoughts on recent federal legislation, including the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the Biden’s $100-billion infrastructure plan (Jobs Act) for broadband, Curtis said it is important to invest in these initiatives, but simply throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything.

He said he wished he could bring Biden to Provo to take a look at Provo’s broadband progress, adding that “creativity and hard work make up for a multitude of sins.”

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