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Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

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April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the April 14, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “Less Than a Billion: Financing Broadband Infrastructure”

  • Congress has appropriated $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit and $7.2 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, and more is being discussed. But internet projects still face financial constraints and regulatory hurdles in navigating the maze to obtain broadband infrastructure financing. This panel will consider funding and cost issues from the perspective of a broadband builder. How can broadband entities most effectively deploy private and public financing to meet increasing high-speed connectivity needs?

Panelists:

  • Jeff Johnston, Lead Communications Economist at CoBank
  • Tim Herwig, District Community Affairs Officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)
  • Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
  • Lauren Mathena, Director of Economic Development and Community Engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC)
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Jeff Johnston is a lead communications economist in CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange research division, where he focuses on the communications industry. His work revolves around identifying emerging technologies, business models, risks and opportunities within the industry, and providing strategic analyses to both internal and external stakeholders. Prior to joining CoBank in 2018, Mr. Johnston was an equity analyst covering the tech, media and telecom sectors. Jeff has also held various senior management positions in the telecommunications industry. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from York University and he is also CFA charterholder.

Timothy Herwig is a District Community Affairs Officer with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).  He is officed in Chicago.  Among other responsibilities, Herwig advocates for community reinvestment by providing technical assistance to banks interested in financing rural broadband infrastructure and rural ISPs looking for private sources of debt or equity financing.  The OCC is an independent bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The OCC charters, regulates, and supervises all national banks, federal savings associations, and federal branches and agencies of foreign banks.

Christopher Mitchell currently serves as the director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year.

Lauren Mathena is the Director of Economic Development and Community Engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). In her role, Mathena serves as a regional ecosystem builder and represents MBC to a variety of local and state partners, including Southern Virginia’s economic developers who rely on MBC’s network for business attraction, retention and expansion. She is currently leading program development for the SOVA Innovation Hub, a 501(c)3 non-profit created in early 2020 with investments by MBC and Microsoft TechSpark.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

Fiber

Google Fiber Says it Welcomes Overbuilding, Competition for Lower Prices and Better Services

Comments were made at the Fiber Connect conference last week.

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Photo of [left to right] David Wade of EPB, Tarryl Clark of NACO Telecommunications and Technology, Jay Winn of Lumos/NorthState, Robert Conger of ADTRAN, and Linda Hardesty of Fierce Telecom, by Drew Clark

NASHVILLE, June 21, 2022 – A representative from Google Fiber said Wednesday at the Fiber Connect conference that the company is encouraged by competition in the fiber space because it leads to partnerships, lower costs for consumers and greater coverage.

Jessica George said that more partners and more people working in the broadband space will encourage more competition, which will drop prices and increase speeds.

She added that Google has been a long-time proponent for overbuilding, where providers build their infrastructure in areas already covered. More competition in the fiber space promotes overbuilding, which ensures greater coverage and connectivity for consumers in that area, she said.

Jay Winn, chief customer officer at fiber provider Lumos Networks, added that Lumos’s strategy is to be “first with fiber” by connecting all homes and businesses in its territory to fiber – at the cost of occasional overbuilding.

Ultimately, the conflict lies between companies that oppose greater competition in favor of protecting their territory and those that encourage competition in favor of creating more opportunities for their consumers, said George.

“What do [ISPs] really believe makes this industry, makes our world, makes our communities better?” asked George.

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Leaders of Broadband Industry Trade Groups Are Bullish on Fiber, With Some Caveats

Fiber networks have a unique capacity to keep broadband prices low for low-income communities, proponents say.

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Photo of David Grossman of CTA, Shirley Bloomfield of NTCA, Matt Polka of ACA Connects, Gary Bolton of FBA (left to right) by Drew Clark

NASHVILLE, June 16, 2022 – Leaders of the broadband industry concurred that because fiber delivers fast, affordable broadband connectivity for generations, almost all new broadband deployments will be delivered with the technology.

Speaking on a panel on the closing day of Fiber Connect on Wednesday, however, this group of trade association leaders differed with each other on how quickly cable and wireless providers would pivot away from those technologies and to all-fiber deployments.

Bringing rival groups together, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the rural broadband telecom association NTCA and the cable industry group ACA Connects, Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton said the purpose was to “unite everyone in the industry to do things for generations to come.”

Fiber networks are uniquely positioned for investing in the future as they have capacity to support higher speeds without replacement or upgrades to the infrastructure, Bolton said. That can keep costs low for customers in future generations. He was not contradicted on the essence of those points by this cohort of trade group leaders.

He also said that fiber will help solve the affordability barrier that exists for low-income families, and the future investments were essential as demands for speed will increase.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, agreed that the Biden administration’s decision to favor fiber in broadband investment was appropriate.

“There is still some competitiveness among technologies,” she said. “Even after the [Notice of Funding Opportunity] on the [Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program], I still got some kind of snarky comments from other folks in the industry” who believe that it is not right to push fiber everywhere.

ACA Connect leader differed slightly with the everything-must-be-fiber approach

America’s Communications Association Connects CEO Matt Polka differed a bit with Bolton’s everything-must-be-fiber approach.

Cable industry providers have demonstrated during the pandemic “the ability to keep this country connected with broadband with capacity to spare because of the prior investment that occurred in the four to five years before that.”

Cognizant that he was speaking at Fiber Connect, Polka said, “there is a bias toward fiber.”

But he instead urged that “whatever the technology is needed in that community, we will find a way to” provide it, he said.

“Oftentimes [Internet Service Providers] will increase speeds to customers without raising prices,” added Paul Breakman, vice president of business and technology strategies at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Giving customers more speed makes the cost of broadband come down everywhere.

“That’s the kind of thing that we can do with this [fiber] technology with greater capacity,” he said.

“We have proved that you cannot, in many ways, survive unless you have broadband in the home,” Breakman continued, adding that affordability is essential for low-income families who need the benefits of broadband connection but could not otherwise afford it.

Reporter Teralyn Whipple contributed to this article.

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Fiber

AT&T Says Gigabit Download Speed Demand Continues to Grow

‘We’re projecting a 5x increase in data consumption from 2021 to 2025.’

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Photo of Next-Tech’s Jimmy Todd, Reed Nelson of Frontier, Trent Fellers of Windstream, Ashley Church of Google Fiber, Chris Altomari of AT&T, and Moderator Stephen Hardy of Lightwave by Drew Clark (left to right)

NASHVILLE, June 15, 2022 – The demand for gigabit-speed fiber connectivity continues to grow, said company representatives during a Fiber Connect conference session on Tuesday, as some companies are testing download speeds beyond what’s currently available.

“We’re projecting a 5x increase in data consumption from 2021 to 2025,” said Chris Altomari, vice president of broadband network product management for AT&T. “There’s no evidence that suggests it’s going to slow down in the next couple of years.”

The comments come after AT&T announced Friday that it has reached 20 Gigabits per second symmetric speeds on its network in a test. The company said in a press release that the speeds were achieved with “minimal infrastructure upgrades” and runs on the same fiber optic cables that it currently uses.

“Fiber is the answer and multi-gigabit speeds are the answer,” Altomari added. “I’m seeing the need for multi-gig and maybe not just the need, but reliance.”

The comments also come after an official from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the agency, which is handling $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure funds to give to the states, has a preference for fiber infrastructure versus other technologies, such as wireless or fixed-wireless.

Ashley Church, a general manager at Google Fiber, added that fiber demand is increasing as customers find innovative ways to use the internet that require the faster speeds that fiber can provide. “The internet has become what it has become because of these increasing speeds.”

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