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Vermont House Backs $150 Million Broadband Plan Creating New State Office

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Photo by Michelle Raponi used with permission

A bill dedicating $150 million of anticipated federal funding to create a new state broadband office to coordinate and accelerate the expansion of high-speed Internet access throughout Vermont passed the State House of Representatives last week with overwhelming bipartisan support.

On March 24th, the Vermont House approved H.B. 360 by a vote of 145-1, backing the creation of the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. If the bill becomes law it would help fund and organize the deployment of broadband infrastructure between Vermont’s nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and their potential partners, which include electric distribution utilities, nonprofit organizations, the federal government, and private Internet Service Providers.

The bill was introduced in the state Senate last Friday, and discussed for the first time in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Enabled by a 2015 law, CUDs are local governmental bodies consisting of two or more towns joined together to build communications infrastructure. They were established to create innovative solutions to build broadband networks and provide a combination of Fiber-to-the-Home and fixed wireless Internet connectivity in their respective territories across Vermont, especially in areas where incumbent ISPs fail to provide adequate service.

Vermont’s CUDs, which have called for federal funding assistance since the onset of the pandemic, are ideally positioned to distribute funds in a way that will provide reliable and high-performance Internet access to every nook-and-cranny of the state. Vermont’s active CUDs have already constructed deep pockets of fiber.

Whether or not the CUDs will be able to reach the state’s goal of delivering universal 100/100 Megabits per second (Mbps) Internet service by 2024 now rests in the hands of Vermont’s Senate, Congress, and the Biden Administration as state and federal lawmakers wrestle with how to best expand access to broadband.

CUDs Desire State Block Grants

The U.S. government has not yet provided guidance on how states will be able to distribute the federal dollars headed their way. In this sense, amendments added to H.B. 360 before it passed Vermont’s House, increasing the bill’s appropriation from an initial $30 million to $150 million, reflect the CUDs call for federal funding and state lawmakers’ desire for the federal government to establish rules that give states flexibility to utilize the funding how they see fit.

As of yet, it appears one of the main sources of broadband infrastructure funding allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, will be awarded in the form of state block grants. States will be awarded between $100 million and $500 million in block grants for capital projects, which include building improved telecommunications networks at a time when remote work, education, and telehealth are more prevalent than ever.

Vermont’s CUDs are hoping little to no constraints are placed on how states can spend incoming federal grant money. In conversation with ILSR, Carole Monroe, CEO of ValleyNet (the operations company of Vermont’s first fully-operating CUD, ECFiber) expressed deep frustrations about the strings that were attached to CARES Act funding. Recipients of CARES Act money were required to spend the funds within months of it being distributed. Monroe lamented the fact that it forced recipients to pursue short-term solutions.

“By the time it reached the state, it was too late to do anything except a few wireless access points here or there,” said Monroe.

“We’ve all been hoping for an infrastructure bill, but I think there will be many strings attached,” she said, cognizant of her past experiences with bureaucratic contingencies on funding. If the funding comes in the form of “block grants to the state it will make it much easier to move forward” because Vermont has a strategic and well-developed plan.

CUDs Need Startup Capital, and to Consolidate

Based on a Magellan Advisors’ report commissioned by Vermont’s Department of Public Services, it is estimated that it will cost $1 billion to deploy broadband infrastructure to the estimated 254,000 locations (82 percent of Vermont) that currently lack 100/100 Mbps symmetrical service (see inline map below, or high-resolution version at the bottom of this story).

CUDs have historically had limited access to the financial capital necessary for expansion into unserved and underserved areas of the state, as previous broadband grant programs have not offered the scale to solve the problem, and traditional funding sources tend to shy away from investing in entities with limited revenue history and little collateral.

Though private investors are beginning to show interest in funding CUDs initiatives, Vermont’s CUDs see the incoming federal funding as a rare opportunity for the infusion of start-up capital initially necessary for CUDs to be financially self-sufficient.

Monroe said that in order for CUDs to be self-supporting they need enough capital for three years of audited financials, three years of positive cash flow, and three years of positive EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization). After getting CUDs to that point, they would then be able to access the municipal bond market, in which interest on money borrowed is not taxable.

While H.B. 360 will help by developing favorable taxing, financing, and regulatory mechanisms to support CUDs, Monroe suggested that it may also make sense for some of Vermont’s smaller CUDs to work together, consolidating Vermont’s nine CUDs into perhaps five or six. Some of the CUDs are very small (serving only about 10 rural towns), which may make it more difficult to gain return on investment.

Potential Partnerships

At the heart of H.B. 360 is a call for increased partnerships to deliver resilient last-mile broadband infrastructure. It will be interesting to follow Vermont’s CUDs to see what entities they end up partnering with, as each partnership is likely to be unique.

Last Friday, Consolidated Communications, a major provider of Internet service in the region, responded to a CUDs request for proposal, demonstrating that the private ISP is willing to partner with the CUDs to deliver high-speed Internet service.

According to Monroe, a large portion of ECFiber’s 6,000 current subscribers switched from Consolidated Communications, so the company quickly learned they needed to improve its service and/or partner with the CUDs to remain viable in the state.

Consolidated Communications could be a desirable partner for Vermont’s CUDs given that they already have access to many pole attachments throughout the state. This will save CUDs from spending already-limited funds on utility pole attachments and make-ready work that often leads to increased costs in the buildout of broadband networks.

Another potential partner for CUDs is Green Mountain Power (GMP), the major electric utility in Vermont, which recently reached an agreement with the Department of Public Service to cover the costs of up to $2,000 for make-ready work in each of the utility’s unserved locations. With 7,500 unserved locations in the utility’s service area, the agreement would reduce the cost of building broadband networks within their footprint by as much as $15 million. Many CUDs are working to calculate how the cost-savings agreement could significantly advance their efforts to expand broadband into unserved regions.

The electric utility’s contributions would also help bring equity to Vermont’s energy sector. Currently all Vermont electric ratepayers are contributing to the rollout of clean energy technologies, yet not all ratepayers are able to access those technologies because they do not have access to adequate broadband.

One thing is clear: Vermont state lawmakers see federal funding, guided by new state legislation, as key to creating a more equitable future and delivering universal broadband access for its citizens.

See a high-resolution map of locations served by 100/100 Mbps in Vermont here.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper with the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Maps Have ‘Misleading’ Satellite Claims, Need Clarity on Challenge Process: Advocacy Group

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in the industry circles.

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Photo of Jenna Leventoff from Internet Law & Policy Foundry

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2022 – Advocacy group Public Knowledge alleged in a letter on Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission’s newly released map includes “misleading” coverage claims of satellite broadband providers and asked the commission to demystify the national broadband map’s bulk challenge process.

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in industry circles. While many agree that the map’s granular, location-level model is superior to the previous Form 477–based, census-block model, some worry that much the new map’s data is deeply inaccurate.

“State broadband offices, local communities, and community based organizations have noted a number of inaccuracies in the new broadband maps,” Public Knowledge wrote in its filing, authored by Jenna Leventoff of the advocacy group, and submitted on behalf of her, Harold Feld, and Greg Guice of Public Knowledge.

The group argued the map overestimates the capabilities of satellite broadband. “Satellite broadband, in theory, is capable of serving most locations in the country,” the filing reads. “However, in practice, satellite providers cannot serve the whole country at broadband speeds.”

The NTIA, in its notice of funding opportunity for the BEAD program, classified locations served exclusively by satellites as unserved. In August, the FCC rescinded Starlink’s $885 million grant from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, alleging unreliability. Besides private advocates such as think tank TechFreedom, FCC commissioners Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr have criticized the agency’s RDOF flip-flop. Starlink appealed in September.

Problems with the challenge process

Public Knowledge also took issue with the process by which the public can challenge the maps’ accuracy. “Although eager to challenge those inaccuracies,” it wrote, “Many expressed confusion over the bulk challenge process, with one even noting that they did not think it was possible.” The advocacy group also asked the commission to clarify the treatment of submitted speed test data.

The FCC scheduled a webinar on the bulk-challenge process for fixed-availability data for November 30, at 4 p.m. ET.

Regardless of accuracy, the FCC’s data will shape the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s state-by-state allocations from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which are scheduled to be announced in June 2023. To ensure challenges are factored into the NTIA’s decision making, the agency has encouraged potential challengers to submit data before January 13, 2023 – less than two months after the map was made available.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Commercial Mapping Products Positioned to Compliment, Challenge FCC Map

Commercial mapping products are emerging as complementary resources for both industry and government players.

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Photo of J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2022 – Although the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is statutorily bound to rely on the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map when dividing the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund among the states, private sector broadband mappers are positioning their own products as complementary resources for both industry and government players.

The FCC’s map went live Friday. J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics, on Monday told Broadband Breakfast he has already incorporated data from the map into his “Infrastructure Essentials BEAD Toolkit,” which provides block-level coverage data as well as information on population density, income distribution, federal funding programs, and more. Luening said his toolkit aims to integrate all data that is relevant to BEAD-related decision making.

Another company that does mapping, Broadband.Money, is framing its product as a means by which to challenge the FCC’s data. The platform announced Thursday that subscribers can access features that enable analysis of location-level data, multi-unit locations, and anchor institutions.

Earlier this month, the NTIA said it plans to announce BEAD allocations by June 2023 and encouraged the public to submit challenge data by January to ensure they are processed in time to affect funding decisions.

NTIA head Alan Davidson, like the FCC, emphasized the importance of a robust challenge process: “The next eight weeks are critical for our federal efforts to connect the unconnected,” he said.

“The FCC’s upcoming challenge process is one of the best chances to ensure that we have accurate maps guiding us as we allocate major…awards in 2023,” Davidson argued. “I urge every state and community that believes it can offer improvements to be part of this process so that we can deliver on the promise of affordable, reliable high-speed internet service for everyone in America.”

CostQuest Associates, the creator of the fabric, and competitor LightBox also offer commercial mapping services. CostQuest beat out LightBox for the FCC’s fabric contract and staved off LightBox’s attempt to challenge the decision.

Broadband.Money, LightBox, and Broadband Toolkit are sponsors of Broadband Breakfast.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Industry and Other Internet-Focused Observers React to Release of National Broadband Map

Critics said that no one knows how thoroughly the map’s inaccuracies can be corrected before BEAD allocations must be made.

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Photo of WISPA Vice President Louis Peraertz at Digital Infrastructure Investment by Zoey Howell-Brown

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – While industry players commenting on the release of the National Broadband Map on Friday praised the Federal Communications Commission for its efforts, several critics said that its inaccuracies are too many to be corrected before the map becomes the basis used to allocate tens of billions of dollars of federal broadband funding.

Published early on Friday, the FCC’s new map contains nationwide, location-level availability data submitted by service providers and layered over a dataset of broadband serviceable locations. The FCC has acknowledged that this initial version of the map will contain inaccuracies.

The National Telecommunications and Information Agency is statutorily bound to divvy up the $42.45-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program among the states based on relative broadband need as displayed in the FCC’s maps. The NTIA stated last week that it intends to begin the announcement of states’ allocations by June 30, 2023.

Praise for the map from wired and wireless industry providers

“Mapping broadband availability throughout the country is critical to achieving 100% connectivity,” said Jonathan Spalter, CEO of broadband association US Telecom, “As the maps are refined over an ongoing, iterative process, US Telecom and its members will continue working closely with the FCC on this effort and we’re committed to getting this right to achieve internet for all.”

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association called the map “an impressive leap in technology, light years beyond the previous maps built from the 477 data submitted by broadband providers,” according to a statement from Louis Peraertz, vice president of policy for the trade group.

The map, he said, “has much of the granularity WISPA’s members have been requesting for years. This information, when further refined in the map’s next iterations, will help wisely shepherd the use of taxpayer dollars to bring all Americans online, preventing pernicious overbuilding and directing broadband to where it is truly needed.”

“Not even one household should be left behind, so ascertaining which specific homes are not reached by broadband will enable infrastructure dollars to be targeted to unserved addresses,” said Internet Innovation Alliance spokeswoman Lauren DuBois. The non-profit but industry-focused group called the release of the map “a major milestone on the journey to achieve universal broadband.”

Review process for fixing the map

To ensure successful challenges to the map’s data are incorporated into the NTIA’s decision-making process, it urged challengers to submit data by January 13, 2023 – less than two months after the FCC map’s release.

BEAD funds will be allocated proportionally since the program has a finite amount of money. Therefore, if data for all states is equally inaccurate, the NTIA’s funding allocations will not be skewed. But if a state’s broadband availability is egregiously undercounted in the FCC’s data, it could lose out on badly needed BEAD funds.

No one currently knows how thoroughly the map’s inaccuracies can be corrected before BEAD allocations are made, Scott Woods, vice president of community engagement and strategic partnerships for Broadband.money, told Broadband Breakfast. “The data in some cases is really bad,” Woods said, adding that if FCC was more transparent throughout the mapping process, the public would have a better understanding of the current situation.

“We don’t want to throw the FCC under the bus,” Woods said. “This is an extremely difficult process, but it does not negate the fact that the methodology and approach was flawed.”

Experts at the Pew Charitable Trusts also told Broadband Breakfast on Friday that although the FCC map’s interface seems well suited for individuals checking location-level availability for their home or business, it is unfriendly towards those attempting county or state-level analysis.

Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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