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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 municipal networks 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.”

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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