March 24, 2021 – The biggest challenge for broadband right now is coming up with a national plan for its funding and classification as a utility, David Gilford, co-founder of the Broadband Equity Partnership, said in an interview with Broadband Breakfast.
Gilford was asked what are the major roadblocks that are preventing the new administration from achieving its goals.
Beside having a uniform plan, he said classifying broadband as a utility would also be difficult and the ability to regulate street poles in national policies that don’t upset local and state jurisdictions are also going to prove challenging.
Smaller jurisdictions will continue to work hard to get their fair share of funding, which will be especially challenging due to current inaccurate and underdeveloped data reflecting where areas are well served.
Gilford, who is also a principal at HR & A Advisors, discussed the findings from their recent survey that found “88 percent of respondents identified fiber deployment as a high priority investment in their communities,” which was largely a bipartisan agreement.
When asked which short-term versus long-term broadband goals should be prioritized, Gilford replied that every city and community is in a different stage of planning. No two communities are the same.
Some areas have advanced plans to tackle broadband deployment and upgrades while others have no plan at all. As federal funding is deployed, there is a large group of cities that will be ready to move fast and act on their plans, he said.
A major finding in the survey was that prioritizing broadband is not a rural versus urban or even Republican vs Democrat problem, as people in a variety of situations agree broadband is important. Gilford said that people do not even think of broadband as an IT or even technical issue, but view it as more of an “educational and economic opportunity” that can’t be lost.
The survey was comprised of over 120 respondents from 18 states across the country representing the political spectrum. Respondents came from small towns, big cities, state and local economic development and IT agencies, utility companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions, and are at many different stages of implementing broadband plans.
Its findings were published on March 12 and will be shared with federal and state policymakers in aggregate.
The survey recommended “the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress consider ambitious infrastructure funding, states and localities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the digital divide.”
Gilford compared broadband to utilities like electricity, gas and water.
“With no internet access, it is impossible to fully participate in the economy, healthcare, and so forth,” he said.
FCC Speed Test App To Improve Broadband Mapping, Agency Says
April 12, 2021 – As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to collect comprehensive data on broadband availability across the United States, the agency is encouraging the public to download its Speed Test app, it announced Monday.
The FCC is using data collected from the app as part of the Measuring Broadband America program. The app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks. In addition to showing network performance test results to the user, the app provides the test results to the FCC while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of program volunteers. It is available on the major app stores.
“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability,” Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.”
The network coverage and performance information gathered from the Speed Test data will help to inform the commission’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data. The app will also be used in the future for consumers to challenge provider-submitted maps when the Broadband Data Collection systems become available.
The FCC has been working to improve its broadband mapping system from Form 477 for several years. Development of the Digital Opportunity Data Collection system began in August 2019, and Rosenworcel created a task force in February 2021 to advance that system. On April 7, the agency announced May 7 as the date for establishing the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.
Sen. Mike Lee Promotes Bills Valuing Federal Spectrum, Requiring Content Moderation Disclosures
April 5, 2021 – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Friday spectrum used by federal agencies is not being utilized efficiently, following legislation he introduced early last year that would evaluate the allocation and value of federally-reserved spectrum.
The Government Spectrum Valuation Act, or S.553 and introduced March 3, directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consult with the Federal Communications Commission and Office of Management and Budget to estimate the value of spectrum between 3 kilohertz and 95 gigahertz that is assigned to federal agencies.
Lee spoke at an event hosted by the Utah tech association Silicon Slopes on Friday about the legislation, in addition to other topics, including Section 230.
Some bands on the spectrum are reserved for federal agencies as they need it, but it’s not always managed efficiently, Lee said. Some are used by the Department of Defense for ‘national security,’ for example, but when asked what that spectrum is used for, we’re told, ‘we can’t tell you because of national security,’ he said.
“Just about everything we do on the internet is carried out through a mobile device, and all of that requires access to spectrum,” he said.
He said that lives are becoming more affected and enhanced by our connection to the internet, often through a wireless connection, which is increasing the need for the government to efficiently manage spectrum bandwidth, he said. Some of the bands are highly valuable, he said, comparing them to the “beach front property” of spectrum.
Legislation changing Section 230
Lee also spoke on Section 230, a statute that protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It’s a hot topic for policymakers right now as they consider regulating social media platforms.
Both Republicans and Democrats want more regulation for tech companies, but for different reasons. Democrats want more moderation against alleged hate speech or other content, citing the January 6 riot at the Capitol as one example of not enough censorship. Republicans on the other hand, including Lee, allege social media companies censor or remove right-leaning political content but do not hold the same standard for left-leaning content.
Lee highlighted that platforms have the right to be as politically-biased as they want, but it’s a problem when their terms of service or CEOs publicly state they are neutral, but then moderate content from a non-neutral standpoint, he said.
Lee expressed hesitation about repealing or changing Section 230. “If you just repealed it altogether, it would give, in my view, an undo advantage to big market incumbents,” he said. One solution is supplementing Section 230 with additional clarifying language or new legislation, he said.
That’s why he came up with the Promise Act, legislation he introduced on February 24 that would require the disclosure of rules for content moderation, and permit the Federal Trade Commission to take corrective action against companies who violate those disclosed rules. “I don’t mean it to be an exclusive solution, but I think it is a reasonably achievable step toward some type of sanity in this area,” he said.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a couple of her colleagues also drafted Section 230 legislation that would maintain the spirit of the liability provision, but would remove it for paid content.
Vermont House Backs $150 Million Broadband Plan Creating New State Office
A bill dedicating $150 million of anticipated federal funding to create a new state broadband office to coordinate and accelerate the expansion of high-speed Internet access throughout Vermont passed the State House of Representatives last week with overwhelming bipartisan support.
On March 24th, the Vermont House approved H.B. 360 by a vote of 145-1, backing the creation of the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. If the bill becomes law it would help fund and organize the deployment of broadband infrastructure between Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and their potential partners, which include electric distribution utilities, nonprofit organizations, the federal government, and private Internet Service Providers.
The bill was introduced in the state Senate last Friday, and discussed for the first time in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
Enabled by a 2015 law, CUDs are local governmental bodies consisting of two or more towns joined together to build communications infrastructure. They were established to create innovative solutions to build broadband networks and provide a combination of Fiber-to-the-Home and fixed wireless Internet connectivity in their respective territories across Vermont, especially in areas where incumbent ISPs fail to provide adequate service.
Vermont’s CUDs, which have called for federal funding assistance since the onset of the pandemic, are ideally positioned to distribute funds in a way that will provide reliable and high-performance Internet access to every nook-and-cranny of the state. Vermont’s active CUDs have already constructed deep pockets of fiber.
Whether or not the CUDs will be able to reach the state’s goal of delivering universal 100/100 Megabits per second (Mbps) Internet service by 2024 now rests in the hands of Vermont’s Senate, Congress, and the Biden Administration as state and federal lawmakers wrestle with how to best expand access to broadband.
CUDs Desire State Block Grants
The U.S. government has not yet provided guidance on how states will be able to distribute the federal dollars headed their way. In this sense, amendments added to H.B. 360 before it passed Vermont’s House, increasing the bill’s appropriation from an initial $30 million to $150 million, reflect the CUDs call for federal funding and state lawmakers’ desire for the federal government to establish rules that give states flexibility to utilize the funding how they see fit.
As of yet, it appears one of the main sources of broadband infrastructure funding allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, will be awarded in the form of state block grants. States will be awarded between $100 million and $500 million in block grants for capital projects, which include building improved telecommunications networks at a time when remote work, education, and telehealth are more prevalent than ever.
Vermont’s CUDs are hoping little to no constraints are placed on how states can spend incoming federal grant money. In conversation with ILSR, Carole Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet (the operations company of Vermont’s first fully-operating CUD, ECFiber) expressed deep frustrations about the strings that were attached to CARES Act funding. Recipients of CARES Act money were required to spend the funds within months of it being distributed. Monroe lamented the fact that it forced recipients to pursue short-term solutions.
“By the time it reached the state, it was too late to do anything except a few wireless access points here or there,” said Monroe.
“We’ve all been hoping for an infrastructure bill, but I think there will be many strings attached,” she said, cognizant of her past experiences with bureaucratic contingencies on funding. If the funding comes in the form of “block grants to the state it will make it much easier to move forward” because Vermont has a strategic and well-developed plan.
CUDs Need Startup Capital, and to Consolidate
Based on a Magellan Advisors’ report commissioned by Vermont’s Department of Public Services, it is estimated that it will cost $1 billion to deploy broadband infrastructure to the estimated 254,000 locations (82 percent of Vermont) that currently lack 100/100 Mbps symmetrical service (see inline map below, or high-resolution version at the bottom of this story).
CUDs have historically had limited access to the financial capital necessary for expansion into unserved and underserved areas of the state, as previous broadband grant programs have not offered the scale to solve the problem, and traditional funding sources tend to shy away from investing in entities with limited revenue history and little collateral.
Though private investors are beginning to show interest in funding CUDs initiatives, Vermont’s CUDs see the incoming federal funding as a rare opportunity for the infusion of start-up capital initially necessary for CUDs to be financially self-sufficient.
Monroe said that in order for CUDs to be self-supporting they need enough capital for three years of audited financials, three years of positive cash flow, and three years of positive EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization). After getting CUDs to that point, they would then be able to access the municipal bond market, in which interest on money borrowed is not taxable.
While H.B. 360 will help by developing favorable taxing, financing, and regulatory mechanisms to support CUDs, Monroe suggested that it may also make sense for some of Vermont’s smaller CUDs to work together, consolidating Vermont’s nine CUDs into perhaps five or six. Some of the CUDs are very small (serving only about 10 rural towns), which may make it more difficult to gain return on investment.
At the heart of H.B. 360 is a call for increased partnerships to deliver resilient last-mile broadband infrastructure. It will be interesting to follow Vermont’s CUDs to see what entities they end up partnering with, as each partnership is likely to be unique.
Last Friday, Consolidated Communications, a major provider of Internet service in the region, responded to a CUDs request for proposal, demonstrating that the private ISP is willing to partner with the CUDs to deliver high-speed Internet service.
According to Monroe, a large portion of ECFiber’s 6,000 current subscribers switched from Consolidated Communications, so the company quickly learned they needed to improve its service and/or partner with the CUDs to remain viable in the state.
Consolidated Communications could be a desirable partner for Vermont’s CUDs given that they already have access to many pole attachments throughout the state. This will save CUDs from spending already-limited funds on utility pole attachments and make-ready work that often leads to increased costs in the buildout of broadband networks.
Another potential partner for CUDs is Green Mountain Power (GMP), the major electric utility in Vermont, which recently reached an agreement with the Department of Public Service to cover the costs of up to $2,000 for make-ready work in each of the utility’s unserved locations. With 7,500 unserved locations in the utility’s service area, the agreement would reduce the cost of building broadband networks within their footprint by as much as $15 million. Many CUDs are working to calculate how the cost-savings agreement could significantly advance their efforts to expand broadband into unserved regions.
The electric utility’s contributions would also help bring equity to Vermont’s energy sector. Currently all Vermont electric ratepayers are contributing to the rollout of clean energy technologies, yet not all ratepayers are able to access those technologies because they do not have access to adequate broadband.
One thing is clear: Vermont state lawmakers see federal funding, guided by new state legislation, as key to creating a more equitable future and delivering universal broadband access for its citizens.
See a high-resolution map of locations served by 100/100 Mbps in Vermont here.
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper with the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.
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