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Broadband's Impact

Experts Weigh What Future Of Broadband Could Look Like Under Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 8, 2021 – Experts in Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast Live Online event debated what “future-proofing” broadband could look like and whether President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan can achieve it.

The White House’s new “American Jobs Plan” looks to fund $100 billion for broadband infrastructure in addition to other areas, and part of that plan “prioritizes building ‘future proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage,” said a White House statement.

Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association, said at Wednesday’s event that fiber is essential for all types of networks. “We do mobile wireless, we do fixed wireless, we use all sorts of spectrum in our toolkit, and all of these wireless networks are connected to fiber at some point, somewhere,” she said.

But Bennet also said there are exciting developments for wireless that is not specifically fiber. “There are a lot of exciting things going on in the wireless world right now that could future-proof networks,” she said. “That’s using software and virtualized networks so that you don’t have to change out hardware on antennas on towers anymore.”

Open radio access networks (Open RAN) are such systems, which use open protocol wireless technologies that prevent the industry from relying on proprietary supplies generated by few companies. Bennet said open RAN is showing promise.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, led a bipartisan effort Tuesday requesting $3 billion in Open RAN technology funding for the Biden administration’s annual budget request.

Doug Brake, director of broadband policy at the think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Wednesday he believes the policy needs to technology neutral.

Legislation should be flexible to allow the best solutions for an area that are needed, he said. When ‘future proofing’ comes up, he said he is worried that fiber and cable become the focus. While fiber is really important to getting many unserved areas connected, we shouldn’t lock ourselves into a single tool — we want the flexibility to solve the problem as its needed, he said.

Municipal versus private broadband

Brake also expressed concern that Biden’s plan would prioritize funds for local municipal and co-op broadband.

“We really need to leverage our private providers, particularly private providers that have large economies that scale,” he said. While municipalities and co-ops are great at filling needed gaps, “they don’t scale well outside the jurisdiction, they don’t invest in [research and development] to develop new access technologies; they don’t contribute to standards,” he said.

But Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, said Wednesday that, “We’ve seen first-hand the significant benefits and significant economic impact that fiber has when it’s deployed in communities,”. He referenced Chattanooga, Tennessee, the first city in America where gigabit-speed internet was offered in 2010. The city developed a municipally-owned fiber network that, according to a 2020 study by Bento Lobo at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, saw considerable return over the 10 years since its deployment.

“Fiber also delivers remote healthcare, online learning, public safety and provides a path for future services like 5G,” Bolton said.

On broadband affordability

Affordability is another piece of the broadband puzzle, and Biden’s proposal also seeks to address long-term cost issues. In a statement, the White House acknowledged the need for some short-term subsidies, but said that “continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers.”

Everyone needs to be able to afford broadband, Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at the advocacy organization Free Press, said Wednesday. “We want to talk about affordability and adoption, and we’ve done that in the mapping context, we’ve done it here, and I think that’s why this plan is so exciting to us,” he said.

Funding programs like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and the focus on affordability and adoption in Rep. Jim Clyburn’s bill and the LIFT America Act are key, he said. This is not one of those, “if you build it, they will come” situations, he said. Building “fabulous networks” in rural and urban areas that people can’t afford to use should not be the infrastructure goal, he said.

Bolton expressed support for Biden’s proposal to address long-term affordability issues, but he wants to see funding done well. “It pains me to see so much precious stimulus money going to subsidize ridiculously expensive, poor-performing broadband such as satellite in rural areas,” he said.

The details of the American Jobs Plan are still being developed, and the White House is discussing those details with a variety of members of the broadband industry, according to Bolton.

Broadband's Impact

Federal Focus On Municipal Builds Rubs Against States’ Policy Opposing Practice: Report

Tim White

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Photo of Tyler Cooper from BroadbandNow

April 8, 2021 – President Joe Biden’s new broadband plan, which emphasizes the importance of municipal-owned networks, is likely to cause tensions with states that have restrictive rules in place against those kinds of builds, according to a new report.

That focus on local networks in Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband, has some in the telecom industry critical or uneasy, while others are excited about the possibilities.

New federal funding with attached rules prioritizing municipal and co-op networks will likely collide with policy in almost half the country, as shown in a BroadbandNow report released Wednesday that details restrictive legislation that is currently on the books in 18 states and minor “roadblocks” in five other states.

BroadbandNow has monitored municipal broadband for several years, and the methodology for this report was done differently than in the past. “Instead of tallying every state that restricts municipal broadband in some way, we’re looking at those that explicitly bar or make it unreasonably difficult to establish such networks,” it reads.

“The broadband sector has come into the forefront of public discourse, with millions of Americans struggling to stay online amidst the pandemic. In many communities, local governments have turned to creating their own solutions where private competition has not met the needs of the populace,” writes Tyler Cooper, chief editor at BroadbandNow.

“These barriers vary from state to state, but tend to take the form of outright bans on the establishment and/or operation of municipal broadband infrastructure,” the report reads. “As well as bureaucratic obstacles that make it functionally infeasible to create a citywide network.”

The report also found that “five additional states (Iowa, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, and Wyoming) have other types of roadblocks in place that make establishing networks more difficult than it needs to be.” Those roadblocks include items like vague legal stipulations, restrictions on certain pricing mechanisms, proposal-stage barriers, phantom cost requirements, and extra tax burdens.

Several states have introduced legislation to reduce those restrictions, including an Arkansas bill that passed in February 2021, a Washington bill still in progress, a Montana bill that failed, and three bills stalled in Tennessee and Idaho, according to the report.

A Republican-led House bill called the CONNECT Act would restrict government-run broadband networks nationwide as long as more than one other broadband service was already available in an area. The bill was introduced on February 18 by Missouri Rep. Billy Long.

In direct opposition to that effort, Biden’s American Jobs Plan would prioritize funding for “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives,” according to a White House statement.

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Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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Broadband's Impact

Focus On Community Networks In Biden Plan A Positive 180-Degree Policy Change, Advocates Say

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from ILSR event

April 7, 2021 – Despite criticism levied against President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure plan, some broadband industry experts are excited about what it could mean for municipal and co-op networks.

Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” would dedicate $100 billion for broadband infrastructure improvements across the country, prioritizing “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives,” said the White House in a statement.

Kim McKinley of UTOPIA Fiber said the announcement is a big shift from former broadband federal policy. She said they are happy to see the focus on community-owned networks, as it’s a 180-degree change from the last administration and a big step for the country, she said Monday during a “Connect This!” panel at the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

This would help remove the barriers to municipal broadband in the retail market, allowing municipally-owned companies to compete with the private retail companies, McKinley said. Many states have restrictions on municipal networks, including Utah where UTOPIA Fiber is based.

The pandemic has created a new reality for broadband and we don’t know what it looks like yet, said Christopher Mitchell, director for ILSR’s network initiative project. “It involves the White House talking about this in a different way. It involves unprecedented amounts of money. It involves local leaders taking this seriously,” he said. The pandemic made people realize they need to stop talking and actually do something, he said.

Biden compared the plan to the 1936 Rural Electrification Act that loaned funds to electric companies to get power connected to every home in America. Electric co-ops were being encouraged by states at the time, and although some worked and others didn’t, that legislation was very successful in the end, Mitchell said.

“If the Biden White House is up for it, this could also be the moment in which we change our future from one in which Comcast gets us to up to $100 per month,” he said. This can be an opportunity for communities to control their own futures, he said.

“This approach is the first adult sane approach I’ve seen in the market, I mean, not because I agree with it, but because it is well thought out,” said Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting. This is a seismic shift and resetting the conversation, because no one at the federal level has made these proposals for many years, he said.

Biden’s price transparency

Price transparency was another benefit of Biden’s plan for the panelists.

It’s talking about more than just bringing better broadband to rural areas, it’s talking about fixing the pricing in urban areas, and for me it’s hinting at the idea for urban co-ops, Dawson said.

Lack of price transparency for fees and bait-and-switch tactics is a big problem in the broadband industry, and we like to see the effort in Biden’s plan for more price transparency, McKinley said.

But the plan has a huge uphill battle because there is already a bill sitting in front of Congress that is very different from this, Dawson said.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, H.R. 1783, was introduced by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., on March 12, and will be incorporated into the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America (LIFT) Act, H.R. 1848, a larger infrastructure bill introduced by the Democratic delegation on the Energy and Commerce committee.

Skepticism persists

USI Fiber’s Travis Carter offered more skepticism about Biden’s plan. We’ve been talking about this for over 10 years, what will really change this time around? He asked.

Mitchell said that people can’t be silent. Officials need to hear from a lot of people that they actually want price transparency and real competition, he said. “Elected officials might be willing to force the cable industry to take a back seat to the public interest for once,” he said.

Carter also asked how effective the plan will be in large urban centers versus smaller towns and rural areas.

Bigger cities might get into this, but the big concern is how they do it, McKinley said.

When I see cities like San Francisco and Seattle, I see big time dumb politics getting in the way of this, said Mitchell, agreeing with McKinley. What cities need to do is solve the problem with “low-key smart strategic investments,” he said.

“Large cities are not necessarily going to make good ISPs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t build fiber and make it available for other people to work on it,” Dawson said.

On the American Rescue Plan

The panel also discussed federal funding that has already passed Congress, including the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the more recent $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that provides $340 billion to states and $130 billion to local governments for various initiatives.

The issue with the American Rescue Plan funds is how different the states will probably use it, Dawson said. Some states will put rules on the money that they pass down, others will just give it to the localities and leave it to their discretion, he said. The problem is that many cities are just going to do terrible things with this money, and if they haven’t thought about broadband, they don’t know what to do with it, so it’s not fair to just dump it on them, he said. Some cities will use it well, but others are going to have a real problem, he said.

McKinley said that cities should be able to decide how best to spend funding they receive, including the potential funding from Biden’s proposal. The funding could be used as a backstop to reduce the level of risk as cities enter into these agreements, she said. If there’s a 15-million project, and a city doesn’t want to leverage a 15-million bonding capacity, then put 5 million of funding in and then bond for 10 million, she said.

Carter argued for a different approach to spending federal funds. It shouldn’t necessarily go to cities because a lot of it will go to waste on unnecessary projects like feasibility studies, he said. The money should go to the people who will actually build the networks and get people connected, he said. The money isn’t free, we’re all paying for it, Carter said. We should want to utilize the tax dollars for maximum benefit, which is getting fiber to every home in America, he said.

The first million dollars is the biggest hurdle for getting an ISP up and running, Carter said. “The Financing piece is only 10 percent of the ISP puzzle, I mean there’s a lot of other things to do to run a successful internet provider, and financing is only a piece of it. But if you can’t get over that first 10 percent hurdle, you’re dead in the water,” he said. Small wireless internet service providers, or WISPs, are struggling to jump to fiber networks, and the money could be used to help them develop fiber plans, he suggested.

But Mitchell disagreed. Municipalities don’t need to be the perfect ideal provider, they just need to do better than a cable and telephone company that just does the bare minimum to extract the most wealth from the community, he said.

“We hear about financing being the biggest issue of these projects, and I don’t think it’s financing. A lot of these cities do have the bonding capacity to do this,” McKinley said. “It’s more about political will and having the appetite to bite off and take this challenge on.”

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