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Infrastructure

Path To Gigabit Found In Pole Access and Government Program Design, Says WISPA CEO

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Photo of Claude Aiken from April 2018 by New America used with permission

March 25, 2021 – Wireless broadband providers need more regulatory support to meet broadband gigabit needs on a large geographic scale, including access to poles and expanding federal programs to more providers, said Wireless Internet Service Providers Association CEO Claude Aiken.

Aiken took to the webinar stage Wednesday to discuss WISPA’s new ‘path to gigabit,’ a proposal that defines needs and goals for providing wireless broadband in the gigabit speed tier across America. It comes at a convenient time just days after three large funding bills were introduced it the House of Representatives.

For infrastructure, all the money available won’t do much good if providers can’t get into a right of way or onto a pole or a tower, Aiken said. Companies need more infrastructure support from all levels of government to lower costs and increase speed of deployment, he said, including allowing all broadband providers access to poles and rights of way.

He also argued for the removal of the requirement for broadband providers to become “eligible telecommunications carriers” for access to infrastructure or qualifying for government programs. ETCs are approved service providers through the Universal Service Administrative Company for certain government programs.

He also said “dig once” rules – those that allow providers to ride on existing infrastructure — should be required during road construction and upgrading to prevent overlap of construction projects, he said.

The ‘path to gigabit’ will also require digital adoption and inclusion, Aiken said. It should include reimbursement programs for low-income consumers and programs for digital literacy, he said.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, its multifaceted, its more than just dollars, Aiken said. “What encapsulates our membership are those who provide solutions, who innovate, and who are nimble and flexible bringing their communities what they need, when they need it,” he said. Our companies will use whatever technology and means they need to serve customers, he said.

Our fixed wireless can do gigabit speeds today in certain contexts, but in order to deliver it on a much broader geographic basis, we need that kind of support, he said.

Critics of gigabit on fixed-wireless

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission held the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction, in which companies bid on the lowest funding they’d be willing to receive from the government to expand broadband access in rural areas, conditioned on certain speed tiers, as Broadband Breakfast explains here.

Since that auction concluded, however, some criticism has been raised that some of the winning bidders won’t be able to meet the conditions of their connection speeds. In response to that criticism, Aiken said that from a technical and financial standpoint, gigabit fixed wireless is a viable option both for current spectrum availability and for new bands that will be available in the future.

He did not comment on the technical capabilities of any specific company to deliver speeds in the gigabit tier, saying that he was confident in the FCC’s ability to determine each winner’s qualification.

Policy areas of focus for gigabit

Beside infrastructure and inclusion, to get to gigabit, Aiken described other areas of policy, including localized spectrum and subsidy program design.

Localized spectrum aims to increase accessible bands by allocating at least 200 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for non-auctioned point-to-multipoint use, on either shared or licensed-by-rule basis, he said.

It also includes shared millimeter-wave spectrum for providers to relieve congested bands in urban areas, and additional auctions for designated spectrum areas for small geographic areas available to small providers, he said. It should also mandate ‘use it or share it’ stipulations for unused licensees.

Subsidy programs should “incentivize and leverage” current providers to deliver broadband to consumers who currently lack access, Aiken said. The programs should be technology-neutral so that one form of broadband is not favored over another, based on an “evolving level” of service considered essential for education, health, safety, and based on the subscription of a “substantial majority” of residential consumers, he said.

Subsidies should prevent government-funded overbuilding, he said, and also favor small providers that can deliver service more quickly in a given residential area.

If we want to think big about solving the broadband digital divide, we need to start thinking small—meaning small companies—to deliver internet to those unserved areas, he said.

Updating broadband maps, which are the datasets that detail where service is available across the country, should be “supercharged,” Aiken said, because they are essential to spending government funds in an intelligent manner.

The FCC is currently in the process of updating the broadband mapping system from Form 477 to a new Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, also called the Digital Opportunity Data Collection.

Universal Service

Advocates Call for Universal Service Fund to Include Broadband Revenues

Letter cites Carol Mattey report, which recommends broadening the base.

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Carol Mattey of Mattey Consulting LLC

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – A broad swath of organizations on Monday is calling for policymakers in Washington to reform and stabilize the Universal Service Fund by broadening its funding base to include broadband revenues.

The Universal Service Fund, which supplies the nation’s low-income and rural and remote communities with basic telecommunications services, currently relies on voice service revenues, which has been a dwindling for years. Debate has emerged about how the fund can be stabilized, with some asking for the money to come from a congressional budget item and others asking for it to come from broadband revenues.

The latter is being recommended by over 254 organizations, including public interest groups, anchor institutions, trade associations and broadband service providers, in a Monday call to action letter to policymakers in Washington. The letter cites a September report by Carol Mattey, a former deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission, which said broadband revenues should be incorporated into the USF base of money to draw upon.

“Unfortunately, this universal service system is in danger of collapse because the mechanism that funds it has not been updated since it was adopted nearly 25 years ago,” the letter said. The USF program is a relic from 1997 and a product of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The letter features organizations including Public Knowledge, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, Gigabit Libraries Network, California Emerging Technology Fund, and a number of telecoms and telecom associations and anchor institutions from over a dozen states.

The contribution percent – the percent providers must pay of their voice revenues – has reached an all-time high in the second quarter this year, at 33.4 percent in the second quarter this year, and decreased slightly after that. Mattey and the signatories, however, warn that the contribution could soar as high as 40 percent in the coming years, as the fund operates at around $10 billion annually.

Citing the Mattey report, the letter suggests that including broadband revenues into the fund would reduce the USF fee to less than 4 percent, adding it would not stunt broadband adoption or retention, as fees are often passed down to customers.

“Our recommendation would reduce regulatory uncertainty, would better reflect evolving uses of services, would be straightforward to administer, and would be more equitable and nondiscriminatory for residential and business consumers than the current system,” the letter said.

“Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission could make this change under its existing authority without requiring new legislation,” the letter added, as Mattey and Greg Guice, Public Knowledge director of government affairs, said at a conference recently.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested earlier this year that Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook should contribute to the fund because they benefit from broadband services. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the idea “intriguing,” while FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington also raised the idea at an event in September.

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Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Completes Payson City Project and Publishes Results of Customer Feedback Survey

UTOPIA customers deep in red states favor net neutrality by a wide margin.

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A photo of a fiber installer courtesy UTOPIA Fiber

November 29, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber announced the completion of a fiber-optic internet network in one of its original 11 cities of Payson, Utah, on November 22.

All 20,000 residents and businesses in Payson City, Utah, have access to UTOPIA’s all fiber, open-access model, according to UTOPIA Fiber. Payson is the eighth of the original group of 11 cities to finalize its broadband infrastructure deployments.

“The original cities were visionaries before their time,” said UTOPIA Fiber Chief Marketing Officer Kimberly McKinley. “We need to give a lot of credit to Payson. Back in 2002, 2004, when UTOPIA was getting off the ground, they saw the benefit of our model.”

“They saw the vision and where the future was headed almost 20 years ago.”

Today, UTOPIA Fiber is deploying broadband infrastructure in 17 cities across Utah and southern Idaho. UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said that the three remaining original cities will have their projects completed by the end of 2022.

UTOPIA’s model is entirely funded through subscriber revenue, at no cost to taxpayers. Based on UTOPIA’s recent surveys, the subscribers in question view the service as a worthy investment.

Annual customer feedback survey

Also, on Oct. 27, UTOPIA Fiber released the results of their annual customer feedback survey. Among other statistics, UTOPIA Fiber reported that the number of customers working from home had increased by more than 230 percent since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, while legislators around the country squabble over how to define broadband – whether it ought to be 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical, nearly half of UTOPIA’s customers purchased speeds over 1 Gigabits per second, which is 10 times faster than 100 Mbps.

Customers need faster speeds to address the myriad services that simply did not exist in the past, many believe. For example, 68 percent of customers are subscribed to a streaming service that did not exist three years ago, and the use of home security connected to the internet rose by 71 percent since 2018.

And 83 percent of consumers stated that they were glad they had invested in UTOPIA, 76 percent stated it had improved their quality of life, and 75 percent said their community is better because of UTOPIA.

In addition to high levels of customer satisfaction, UTOPIA also found that consumers were strongly in favor of net neutrality policies, with 92 percent of respondents indicating as much.

“A few years back we saw an influx of customers that came over to the UTOPIA system because that our providers are net neutral,” said McKinley. “I think that that speaks to people who want more privacy and control over their user experience. I think that is what we’re seeing at UTOPIA Fiber.”

Despite being generally favorable toward the practice up through the Obama Administration, net neutrality was struck down in the U.S. in 2017 by the Trump Administration’s FCC led by Ajit Pai. Though conservatives have historically portrayed net neutrality as an example of government overreach, McKinley argues that Utah is an example of why this issue should not be a partisan one.

“[This data] shows that people do not want to be beholden to big telcos who have control of their entire user experience. I think our survey proves more than anything that this is a bipartisan topic, and this is not a blue versus red discussion,” she said. “[Consumers] just want better.”

UTOPIA Fiber is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Wireless

Verizon, TracFone Deal Gets FCC and California Approval

The companies agree to consumer protection measures as conditions of the transaction.

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Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2021––The Federal Communications Commission voted Monday to approve Verizon’s purchase of TracFone Wireless.

The transaction is subject to binding conditions to ensure that the deal benefits the public interest. In approving the deal, the FCC imposed requirements to protect consumers from price increases, guarantee affordable 5G services and devices for underserved customers, and ensure that TracFone continues its support as a federal subsidy Lifeline program participant. Specifically, Monday’s order requires TracFone to offer its Lifeline supported services for at least seven years and offer “a range of cost-effective 5G devices” and plans to existing and new Lifeline customers.

The FCC also adopted enforcement measures as a condition of the merger. “Given the likelihood that any violation of these conditions could harm low-income consumers,” the FCC’s press release said, “today’s Order requires regular public reporting and more than seven years of oversight.” The enforcement mechanism includes an internal and an independent compliance officer who are empowered to proactively monitor conditions, ensure that low-income consumers are not being harmed, and facilitate consumer complaints about potential violations.

On Friday, the California Public Utilities Commission also approved Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone Wireless with those similar conditions.

TracFone is the largest prepaid carrier in the U.S. And with TracFone’s 21 million customers, Monday’s merger makes Verizon the largest prepaid service operator in the country.

Kathleen Burke, policy counsel for public interest group Public Knowledge, said Monday that the organization “applaud[s] the FCC for its thorough review of this merger, and its efforts to ensure that this merger meets the necessary public interest standard.” With these commitments, Burke says a merged Verizon/TracFone “should provide better prepaid and Lifeline services to the benefit of low-income and price-conscious consumers.”

The deal was initially criticized for eliminating a strong Verizon competitor and potentially leading to an increase in the barrier to market entry for the communications sector. Policy analyst Daniel Hanley at the Open Markets Institute said in a Broadband Breakfast expert opinion that the merger allows Verizon to neutralize competitors.

“Verizon does not need to acquire TracFone to accomplish its operational goals,” he said. “The FCC should not allow Verizon to use its dominant financial position to acquire a critical competitor and market participant and forgo operational investments and other necessary market research to expand its network.”

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