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Infrastructure

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

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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.”

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Spectrum

FCC Spectrum Authority Expires on September 30, Agency Seeks Renewal

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s proposal for increased auction authority would allow the agency to support infrastructure investment.

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WASHINGTON, September 26, 2022 – Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged Congress last week to extend the agency’s authority to conduct spectrum auctions, which is set to expire this week.

“The FCC has held the authority to hold spectrum auctions for about three decades,” Rosenworcel said during a National Telecommunications and Information Administration spectrum policy symposium on September 19.

“It has been a powerful engine for wireless innovation and economic growth.
In fact, using this authority the FCC has held 100 auctions and raised more than $233 billion in revenue”

September 30 will mark the end of Congress’s fiscal year and the expiry of the FCC’s authority. In July, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce passed the Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022, H.R. 7624, which includes an extension of the auction authority through to March 2024.

Spectrum and Next Generation 911

The Spectrum Innovation Act was passed in July of this year, which required the FCC to host a spectrum auction to use $10 billion of allocated funds towards Next Generation 911, an Internet Protocol-based system to replace the analog 911 system.

Implementing NG911 in states and counties nationwide will require the coordination of emergency, public safety, and government entities. 

Urgent Telecommunications reported last week that the Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition, a coalition of public-safety associations, said that NG911 would not be available for years.

The coalition requested that NG911 funds could be borrowed immediately from the U.S. Treasury, which would be repaid when the proceeds from the 3.1-3.45 GigaHertz (GHz) spectrum auction are made available.

 

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Kirsten Compitello: The Need for a Digital Equity Focus on Broadband Mapping

Incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kirsten Compitello, National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International

Broadband for all is in the spotlight right now, and closing the digital divide is recognized as a national priority. The divide goes far beyond access and touches issues of costs, ownership, culture, awareness, skills, and more. As we enter into a period of major statewide planning and deployment efforts, incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities in access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital equity is not just a value statement: it’s a commitment to inclusive and equitable decision making at every stage of broadband deployment, from planning to service delivery.

Ensuring equitable representation at the table

Embedding digital equity analysis into mapping is especially critical at this moment in time as we prepare for historic broadband funding. This funding is an opportunity to rebalance systemic patterns of exclusion and ensure rapidly deployed planning and implementation funds are fairly dispersed.

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion, including the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. In creating these Statewide Digital Equity Plans, extensive outreach to and collaboration with underserved, unserved and historically marginalized populations will prove critical. These discussions will be much more informative and effective in guiding successful policies, programs and projects if they are rooted in clear understanding of social, economic and environmental patterns alongside broadband access maps.

Documenting the effects of digital exclusion

Access is not an equal term: reducing it simply to speed of service available neglects the social and economic complexities that determine how and where users are affected by a lack of broadband. In short, mapping where the infrastructure exists only tells part of the story. Data analysis needs to layer in demographic and economic information in order to reveal patterns of exclusion and identify root causes.

To better understand community impacts, our team at Michael Baker developed data visualization tools such as a Digital Equity Atlas which takes the next step toward analyzing how broadband gaps disproportionately impact segments of the population. The methodology looks at Title VI and Environmental Justice data to reveal where poor connectivity correlates to social factors including low income, senior populations, English as a Second Language, households without a vehicle and more. As an example, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission leveraged the Digital Equity Atlas to prioritize new broadband expansion projects that stand to benefit the greatest number of at-risk or marginalized households. These households should not be last in line to see broadband investment finally bringing greater connectivity and opportunities to their doorsteps.

Fulfilling Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program requirements

Federal reporting requirements for upcoming Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act funding call for a proven and documented understanding and analysis of digital equity needs, from planning to projects in the ground.

The IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.45 billion to expand broadband access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs across the country. Statewide Five-Year Action Plans, funded through this program, will require government agencies and their partners to take an integrated digital equity approach.

From planning through the ensuing reporting requirements, establishing digital equity strategies and a clear rubric for measuring success in achieving digital equity goals is a must for agencies. These entities must demonstrate how projects funded through BEAD improve digital equity. A strong data-driven baseline – such as the Digital Equity Atlas – will be a necessary starting point for agencies to track and monitor the effect of each new deployment on surrounding households. These data-driven metrics will also be a win for state and local governments to tell the story of their successes with clear data to back it up.

Setting a goal for sustainable inclusivity

As the consumption of internet content continues to rise and as broadband for all projects bring connectivity to the unserved, baseline expectations for broadband service and speed will only continue to grow. If we aren’t careful, new categories of have-nots will emerge: for example, those who pay high fees for minimum speeds versus those with lower fees for premier plans and Gig speeds. The currently unserved will gain access to service, but many will continue to struggle with basic internet skills, navigating through complex terms of service, or even simply finding time to schedule installation without missing a day of work.

To create a truly equitable society, everyone – no matter age, ability, location or status – needs access to affordable and reliable broadband; internet-connected devices; education on digital technology and best use practices; tech support and online resources that help users participate, collaborate and work independently.

By grounding our planning in equitable practices from the very first step, we can help to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from Internet for All.

Kirsten Compitello, AICP, is the National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Spectrum

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chair Takes FCC to Task for Communication With Tribes

‘You need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities,” the chairman told the FCC.

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Screenshot of Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2022 –Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Brian Schatz on Wednesday urged the Federal Communications Commission to consult more regularly with Tribal leaders on the spectrum-licensing processes.

“Some of [the problems voiced native panelists at the roundtable] could simply be avoided by better, more aggressive, more continuous, more humble consultation, and you’re going to save yourselves a ton of headache,” said Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. “I’m wondering if you need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities at every step in the process.”

“Chairman, I think you put that extremely well,” responded Umair Javed, chief council for the office of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Tyler Iokepa Gomes, deputy to the chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, told the committee of difficulties faced by native Hawaiians in obtaining spectrum licenses. Since the DHHL is a state entity, not a Tribal government, Gomes said, it was forced to compete against two local, native communities in a waiver process. Gomes said that his agency’s competition with the other waiver applicants caused considerable friction in Hawaii’s native community at large.

Low digital literacy is also a problem for some native communities attempted to secure spectrum licenses. “When it comes to technology, a lot of people seem to be scared of it,” said Keith Modglin, director of information technology for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a federally-recognized Indian Tribe.

Modglin argued that education initiatives to raise digital literacy and explain the intra- and intercommunity benefits of spectrum would benefit his band greatly.

The land of the Mille Lacs Band is a “checkerboard,” meaning that Tribal lands are interspersed with non-tribal lands, said Melanie Benjamin, the tribe’s chief executive officer. According to Benjamin, navigating government’s failure to account for this status caused substantial delays for her tribe.

In addition to improving communication, Schatz called on the FCC to take affirmative actions to ease regulatory burdens on small tribes. “There are some really under resourced native communities, and it shouldn’t be a labyrinth to figure out what they’re eligible for,” he said. “Try to figure out some one-stop shop, some simple way to access the resources that they are eligible for under current law.”

Javed acknowledged a need for the FCC improve its communication with native communities, but he said the FCC is making strides in other areas. “While spectrum is one piece of that puzzle, I think we are making a lot of progress in some of our programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, updates to the E-Rate program, some of our mapping efforts as well,” he said.

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