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Broadband Mapping & Data

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

Broadband Mapping Coalition Seeks to Bring Openness Back to Internet Data

The coalition will play a crucial role in broadband data as government implements the largest expenditure of broadband funds.

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Photo of Dustin Loup of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition

June 17, 2022 – Non-profit organizations and academic researchers seeking to ensure the openness and transparency of broadband data collection efforts have created an organization, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, seeking to gather resources on data and mapping.

Shepherded by the Marconi Society, this National Broadband Mapping Coalition has filed comments before the Federal Communications Commission and is ramping up its efforts to be a leading voice for open and transparent broadband data.

The group is led by Dustin Loup, of the public interest group Marconi Society. Loup has been actively involved in the internet governance and policy space for years. Together with Measurement Lab (which is led by Lai Yi Ohlsen), a non-profit group that has been collecting broadband speed data since 2008, these two organizations are poised to promote the vital role of open broadband data as the U.S. Commerce Department implements the largest expenditure of federal broadband funds in history.

Join Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Why we need open broadband data

In a recent piece on Broadband.Money, Sarah Lai Stirland details the importance of actual speed data in challenging existing Federal Communications Commission broadband data:

  • If you click on the census blocks around Newcastle in Broadband Money’s online map, you’ll see that the Federal Communications Commission data shows the blocks as “served” because at least one location has access to internet service of 1000 Mbps symmetrical service. That information is self-reported data from the form 477 that the FCC requires internet service providers to provide.Speed tests from Ookla and the non-profit M-Lab, however, indicate that that census block is, at the very least, “underserved” by the standards established by federal legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. M-Lab says that average internet speeds in the area are 22 Mbps * 5 Mbps and Ookla reports 63 Mbps * 6 Mbps.

Lai Stirland’s profile of Ohlsen and Loup also discusses her skills in computer science and project management, and Loup’s history of involvement in the internet by the Arab Spring.

On a personal level, I’ve been a strong advocate of the importance of public and open broadband data for more than 15 years. See “U.S. broadband infrastructure investments need transparency,” ArsTechnica, February 10, 2009. That op-ed recounts our efforts to obtain FCC Form 477 data in 2006 and 2007, followed by founding BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 to crowdsource the collection of broadband speed and availability data.

But this was superseded by the National Broadband Map, version 1.0, launched in February 2011. In that first national broadband map, State Broadband Initiatives (like the Partnership for a Connected Illinois) played a primary role in the collection of provider data about broadband availability.

But that national broadband map failed for two reasons:

  • Everyone in a census block was considered “covered” if one person in a census block was “covered,” or served with 25 Mbps * 3 Mbps broadband.
  • Broadband speeds were self-reported by providers, and there was limited fact-checking, or crowdsourcing, of actual broadband speeds.

Broadband mapping is about to become one of the most central issue in the rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without the crucial check of open and public data, broadband mapping runs the risk of falling victim to the same challenges of the last decade.

Who is the National Broadband Mapping Coalition?

The National Broadband Mapping Coalition lays out the problem, and the solution, extremely well on its web page – which is worth quoting at length:

  • U.S. policymakers, advocates, and researchers need access to more comprehensive and reliable data on broadband coverage in order to solve the digital divide. The data currently available is insufficient and often misleading. Through a partnership with leaders who value transparent, peer-reviewed, open data, we’re innovating a new approach to mapping broadband network analytics that will help stakeholders gain data-driven insight into this critical issue.
  • The Problem
    Millions of U.S. residents live without adequate broadband access. While the FCC collects self-reported broadband coverage data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that data is often inaccurate and incomplete, and does not offer a detailed, granular picture of connectivity and affordability gaps. Without more complete data, localities face barriers in making their case for securing state and federal funding that is intended to address these digital divides.We believe transparent measurement standards based on new and existing open-source and openly verifiable methodologies are necessary to provide communities with the tools they need to collect data on connectivity speeds, pricing, and availability.State, local, and U.S. Governments restrict data collection and/or sharing for a variety of reasons, resulting in the inability to provide full transparency. The work of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is intended to strengthen government broadband initiatives and provide the public with much-needed performance information….
  • Coalition
    We have convened a national coalition of leaders in digital inclusion, technology, research, and policy. Responding to an increased focus on broadband adoption and measurement at the federal level, as well as the continued failure to consistently and verifiably map existing broadband infrastructure, performance, and value, this coalition aims to establish best practices and enable communities, governments, and individuals to access information they need….

In addition to the Marconi Society and M-Lab, other charter partners of the coalition include Google (which has supported M-Lab since its launch), the Internet Society, the Institute for Local and Self-Reliance, and X-Lab. Read more about its vision and mission.

See also:

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

Ten Years After the Beginning of Broadband Data Collection Efforts, M-Lab Gathers to Celebrate,” Broadband Breakfast, August 8, 2018

M-Lab Celebrates 10 Years of Broadband Speed Tests, Discusses Work with Schools and Libraries,” Broadband Breakfast, August 16, 2018

Priorities for open broadband data research

Rather than creating one more map, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is beginning to bring a greater clarity around the importance of open and transparent data for broadband.

In its recent filing at the FCC, the coalition discussed the comparability of quality of service metrics, with a particular focus on the basic forms of measurement: download and upload speeds and latency. But they say,

  • Speeds and latency are common metrics many people are familiar with, but they are not the  only metrics of Internet performance that matter to the quality of service. Jitter, packet loss, and  bufferbloat (latency under load) each have a direct impact on actual experience of Internet  users. When any of these metrics are performing poorly, it can be especially detrimental to the  performance of real-time applications that support activities, such as a telehealth appointment,  job interview, virtual classroom participation, or meeting a new grandchild from thousands of  miles away. These impacts on the quality of experience can occur regardless of the bandwidth.  Additional quality of service metrics such as network uptime and the mean repair time to restore  access are important metrics.  The Coalition recommends that the Commission takes steps to identify a set of measurable  quality of service indicators, including but not limited to those described in these comments.

No one said that broadband mapping was going to be easy. The more rocks that you turn over, the more dirt that you find. But the easiest way to improve and to course-correct is to be scientific. And that starts with open and transparent data.

Learn more by joining Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Announces Video Tutorials to Assist Broadband Data Collection Filers

The tutorials are designed to assist filers in the ongoing effort to create updated broadband maps.

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Photo of Jean Kiddoo from Twitter

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday a tutorials program that will help guide providers to submit mapping data when the collection process opens up late next month.

The online help center is designed to provide filers with video tutorials and other resources to help them navigate new broadband data filing requirements and broadband availability data. It comes after the agency announced earlier this year that it is opening up the process of accepting broadband coverage data beginning June 30.

Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, said this program would “ensure that filers can hit the ground running on June 30.” The filing window will remain open until the deadline on September 1, 2022.

This effort to improve the accuracy of broadband data is a part of the FCC’s ongoing task of releasing updated broadband maps, which are expected to be published by the fall.

Many stakeholders in the industry have argued that the existing maps lack the granularity necessary to provide internet service providers, municipal entities, consumers, and the federal government with a complete picture of how served Americans are. The maps are expected to guide billions in federal dollars.

In March, CostQuest Associates began the work to create the broadband fabric that would be used for the existing maps following a failed challenge by LighBox. Individual states have also begun work on their own mapping independent of federal efforts.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

In the absence of reliable federal broadband mapping data, communities are taking matters into their own hands.

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Photo of Lai Yi Ohlsen and Dustin Loup by Jericho Casper

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 27, 2022 –Two data experts speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here on Wednesday said it was vital for the Federal Communications Commission to maintain transparency about its methods as it produces an updated broadband map.

The release of $42.5 billion in federal broadband funding through the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is contingent upon new broadband maps being produced by the Federal Communications Commission.

Agency Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has committed to delivering such maps by the fall. During a House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight hearing on March 31, when asked about progress, she said: “Absolutely, yes. We will have [complete] maps in the fall.”

Completed Maps Will ‘Absolutely’ Be Available This Fall, FCC’s Rosenworcel Says

Still, many are skeptical.

In particular, states and localities are involved in data collection, too – if only to have data to challenge FCC maps. Lai Yi Ohlsen, director of Measurement Lab, and Dustin Loup, program manager of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition for the Marconi Society, said that detailing methodologies will be important to the challenge process.

Loup recommended that communities announce speed tests and include a survey in order to get a sense of where the participant is located, what plan they are paying for and encourage participants to take the test multiple times to see how Internet speeds fluctuate at different hours of the day.

Ohlsen and Loup also said that communities should provide speed tests in different languages and partner with community anchor institutions, local media, and radio stations for publicity.

Questions about the new federal map

The new broadband “fabric” under construction by the FCC aims to address granularity issues of previous maps by enabling address-by-address data. But as to the legitimacy of the new FCC maps, the duo said that the maps will still paint an inaccurate picture of where broadband is and is not accessible across the country.

This is because the data used to create the new maps, they said, will be based upon industry-advertised broadband speeds and not actual user-experienced speeds.

This is particularly worrisome because funds under the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program will be awarded to each state and territory will be primarily based on the number of locations considered to be unserved with broadband, as defined by 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down by 3 Mbps up. This is why cities, counties, and states are currently creating strategies to crowdsource residents in order to develop their own broadband maps in the event that the FCC misrepresents internet access options available to their residents.

Challenge process

Although the NTIA is required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to use the FCC’s new mapping fabric, they will also be subject to new scrutiny.

In particular, local governments, nonprofit organizations and broadband service providers can produce their own data to challenge the eligibility of a locality for grant funding.

The challenge process will begin once the FCC’s new maps are made public. Any government entity or nonprofit with conflicting evidence will be able to file their findings through an FCC platform, said Ohlsen and Loup.

Providers will be automatically notified of the challenge and have 60 days to respond to the challenger, in order to try and resolve the inconsistencies. If the entities fail to resolve differences in the conflicting data, the FCC will be responsible for making the final decision.

Broadband Breakfast on June 29, 2022 — Broadband Mapping and Data

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022, 12 Noon ET –Broadband Mapping and Data

Now that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Notice of Funding Opportunity has been released, attention turns to a core activity that must take place before broadband infrastructure funds are distributed: The Federal Communications Commission’s updated broadband maps. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as implemented by the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, these address-level maps from the FCC will determine the allocation of funds among states and serve as a key source of truth. Our panelists will also consider the role of state-level maps, the NTIA challenge process and other topics. Join Broadband Breakfast as we return to one of the subjects that we know best: Broadband data and mapping.

Panelist resources:

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