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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.

Funding

State Broadband Offices Have Obligation to Explain NTIA Notice of Funding to Applicants

Georgia Technology Authority representative says the notices are dense and difficult for applicants to understand.

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Screenshot of Kat Lau, Josh Hildebrandt and Shannon Millsaps

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2022 – A representative from the Georgia Technology Authority on Friday said that state broadband offices are obligated to work with those applying for funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill so that they understand the rules used to determine grant allocation.

Speaking at an event on grant applications for rural communities hosted by the National Broadband Resource Hub, Josh Hildebrandt, GTA’s director of broadband initiatives, emphasized that to maximize their chances of being selected for funding, applicants could require significant assistance in understanding the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s notices of funding opportunity that were released last week.

Want to know more about this game-changing Notice of Funding Opportunity, and the powerful tools it brings to U.S. last mile broadband? Visit Broadband.Money‘s tools and resources, including four themes to watch for in the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment NOFO.

“They are established for the sole fact of working through these NOFOs and being able to just deploy these funds,” said Hildebrandt.

Experts such as digital access organization Thrive Regional Partnership’s director of transportation and infrastructure Shannon Millsaps, another panelist at Friday’s event, say that the NTIA’s notices are not very easy for applicants to understand in part due to the dense language they use in explaining agency guidelines.

Hildebrandt also encouraged grant applicants to follow criteria in federal rules for disbursement that is stated to be “preferred” for grant allocation, stating that this will increase chances for applicants to win funding.

Millsaps additionally emphasized the need to remember in fund disbursement that different communities are struggling with different barriers to connectivity, even ones within the same state, and that different approaches to connecting the communities will be required during implementation of broadband infrastructure expansion.

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Funding

Mountain Connect Features NTIA’s Alan Davidson, 2 Colorado Senators and State Attorney General

A star-studded cast will take the stage next week as part of the dozens of events slated to take place.

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Photo of Alan Davidson (left) and Drew Clark at Broadband Breakfast for Lunch in April 2022 by Megan Boswell

May 20, 2022 – The Mountain Connect conference next Tuesday and Wednesday will feature an interview with National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson by Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark.

The two will discuss the recent notice of funding opportunities on released for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, and the State Digital Equity Act programs.

Pose questions of and watch Davidson’s interview with Clark at the event livestream.

See questions asked of Davidson at Broadband Breakfast for Lunch in the Broadband.Money community, or read Broadband Breakfast’s and other reports of the prior event.

Also see Broadband Breakfast and Broadband.Money’s analyses about the recent Notices of Funding Opportunity, including on Middle Mile NOFO, and on BEAD’s local coordination and the challenge process.

The conference, in Keystone, Colo., on May 24 and May 25, will also include a question and answer session with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Bennet sponsored the of the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act of 2021 which would go on to influence the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., will also speak at the event on Wednesday, and other officials speaking at Mountain Connect include Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, ConnectME Authority Executive Director Peggy Schaffer, Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton, Nextlink Internet Chief Strategy Officer Claude Aiken, and many others.il May 24.

There will also be five distinct subject tracks across both May 24 and May 25: Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment, Community Developments Track (One and Two), Emerging Technologies, and Community Broadband Case Studies.

These events will feature speakers from across the industry, representing providers, advocates, municipal entities, and private ventures. There will be 15 such events on May 24 and an additional 10 on May 25.

Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance Christopher Mitchell will be moderating two panels on May 24 – an event on Community Development Track One and another an hour later on BEAD.

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Funding

34 States Submit Letters of Intent to Participate in NTIA’s Main Broadband Program

National Telecommunications and Information Administration announces news on its ‘Internet for All’ web portal for three IIJA programs.

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Photo of Gina Raimondo from CNBC

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – The Biden administration announced Wednesday that 34 states and territories signed on to participate in the programs outlined by its “Internet for All” initiative.

The “Internet for All” moniker is the new umbrella web site of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration for its three programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: the Broadband Digital Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, and the State Digital Equity Act programs.

These programs are part of the administration’s goals of bridging the digital divide and achieving universal broadband by 2030.

Since NITA announced the IFA on Friday, the following territories and states announced their intention to participate: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, American Samoa, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, United States Virgin Islands, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo stated that the NTIA’s programs would be critical to allowing Americans to “participate in the modern economy.”

“Generations before us brought electricity to rural America and built the interstate highways,” said Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA administrator. “Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states are now ‘signing on’ to this initiative to promote Internet access and adoption so that everyone in America has a chance to thrive in the modern economy.”

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