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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.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Commissioning Mobile Wireless and Fixed Broadband Data for Better Mapping

The agency released a statement of objectives earlier this month.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission this month released a statement of objectives to get mobile wireless and fixed broadband performance data for at least the next year.

The November 2 document is intended to aggregate mobile wireless broadband and fixed broadband performance data that will “support the Commission’s analysis of broadband performance and availability in several Commission reports, including its statutorily-required annual Broadband Deployment Report and its biennial Communications Marketplace Report (CMR),” the document said.

The tentative schedule for data collection will be from January 1, 2022 to December 31, 2022, with an option to extend for another three years beyond that, to December 2025.

The data will include consumer-initiated mobile wireless speed tests from Android and iOS devices and other operating systems, like Windows on desktop, for fixed internet connections. It should include rural and non-rural markets and have data dating back to at least January 2021. The data would also be aggregated based on technology and provider, domestic city-level, and international comparisons.

Respondents are being asked to submit their capabilities of collecting this test data and provide a response to the FCC by November 23.

One of the agency’s primary objectives is to get better mapping data to make better decisions on where to disburse federal funds and to avoid mistakes. The agency is currently going through a bit of a clean-up operation after the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s reverse auction process awarded winning bidders with money to build in areas that already have adequate services. The defaulting bidders said in letters that they relied on the FCC’s Form 477 data, which supplied inaccurate information as to coverage. (The FCC’s Form 477 data, which relies on service provider information, has been mired by problems for years.)

On November 9, the FCC awarded a contract to broadband consulting firm Costquest Associates to collect data on the availability and quality of fixed broadband internet access across the country as part of the agency’s obligations under the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, which became law last year.

The law requires the agency to collect granular data on fixed and wireless broadband, create publicly available coverage maps, and create a common dataset of all locations where fixed broadband internet can be installed, called the “Fabric.” Costquest will need to provide this fabric dataset, which includes all structures – defined as households and buildings – in the 50 states and its territories and note whether internet access is, or should be, available.

Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium last month, FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency’s crowdsourcing mapping efforts is a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.

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Broadband Mapping

Broadband Breakfast Panel Emphasizes Need for Better Mapping to Maximize Infrastructure Bill Money

Funds made available by the infrastructure bill will not need solid maps to make spending efficient, experts agree.

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WASHINGTON, November 11, 2021 – A critical step to maximizing the Congress-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill is crafting innovative mapping to pinpoint areas of focus for the billions of dollars in money going to broadband projects, experts hosted by Broadband Breakfast said Wednesday.

Following more than a decade of inefficient attempts from the Federal Communications Commission to map broadband needs nationally and continued lagging of current FCC mapping projects, individual states — Georgia has been one standout that is taking that initiative head-on — may need to create their own maps to meet timelines for funding allocated by the new bill. That’s despite FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel saying recently that she’s optimistic that the agency is developing the best wireless maps in the country, as the agency reels from errors made in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said during a Tuesday press conference about the infrastructure bill that the department will be working closely with the FCC’s mapping data.

Once the bill is signed into law, there will be a six-month period in which National Telecommunications and Information Administration can disburse the $42 billion it will get for broadband infrastructure based on need found through mapping efforts, said Public Knowledge’s director of government affairs Greg Guice during Wednesday’s panel discussion.

Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill, each state will receive $100 million in addition to further funding that is allocated based on the number of households in need present in the state.

Per Guice, some of the most useful maps for figuring out where funding is necessary will come from overlaying data such as metrics on internet speed and demographic information that covers income and ethnicity distributions in localities. Demographic information is especially important for addressing issues such as digital redlining, the perpetuation of already existing inequities among marginalized groups through digital technologies.

Steps in the right direction for effective mapping

Still, despite agreement between all the panelists that past mapping practices hinder effective broadband funding disbursement, the panel also lauded recent efforts to improve mapping practices.

Guice commended an FCC request for proposal that seeks to create a “robust” maps in terms of the information it can provide. Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, expressed hope about the impacts that crowdsourcing efforts could have in creating accurate broadband maps.

Steve Pastorkovich, senior director of broadband funding and development for the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative also hailed increased flexibility put in place for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund as helpful in mitigation of the problems that subpar mapping practices have created for fund disbursement.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the November 10, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021, 12 Noon ET — Unpacking the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act

The passage of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act presents an unparalleled opportunity for advocates of Better Broadband, Better Lives. In this “breaking news” edition of Broadband Breakfast Live Online, officials from the broadband industry, including public interest advocates, will talk about the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, how they see the core provisions included within, and next steps for action in developing broadband projects.

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Greg Guice, Director of Government Affairs, Public Knowledge
  • Gary Bolton, President and CEO, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA)
  • Steve Pastorkovich, Senior Director, Broadband Funding & Development, NRTC
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

See House Passes Bipartisan Broadband Infrastructure Bill, But Without Reconciliation Measure, and Industry and Non-Profit Groups Offer Uniformly Positive Views of Broadband Bill’s Passage, Broadband Breakfast, November 6, 2021

 

Greg Guice is the Director of Public Knowledge’s Government Affairs team, where he focuses on outreach on the full complement of Public Knowledge’s issues and policy recommendations to promote broadband access and technological innovation. Greg has more than 20 years of experience working on legislative and regulatory issues affecting today’s technology market.

Gary Bolton serves as president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association — the largest trade association in the Americas dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. With more than three decades in the telecom industry, Bolton joined the Fiber Broadband Association as president and CEO in 2020 after serving on the association’s board as vice chairman, treasurer and vice chairs of public policy and marketing committees. Prior to taking the leadership role at the Fiber Broadband Association, he spent 11 years at ADTRAN serving as vice president of global marketing and government affairs.

Steve Pastorkovich is NRTC’s Senior Director, Broadband Funding & Development, and has advocated on behalf of rural broadband providers in the nation’s capital for over 20 years. He spearheaded NRTC’s funding initiatives, including work on the Rural Utilities Service’s ReConnect broadband loan and grant program, and the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction. Prior to NRTC, he spent 20 years working for rural telecommunications trade associations.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Panelist Resources:

  • Statement of Gary Bolton of the Fiber Broadband Association.

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.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Native Americans Need Control Over Mapping Data, Conference Hears

Indigenous connectivity advocates said Native Americans should have control over their mapping data.

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Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.

October 18, 2021––Advocates for greater broadband access in Native American lands discussed the need for greater control over broadband mapping to address broadband challenges amongst Native American populations.

Traci Morris and H. Rose Trostle from the American Indian Policy Institute said Wednesday at the Indigenous Connectivity Summit that there is now an intense focus on “broadband inequality and digital equity” as it relates to Tribal nations.

Morris and Trostle’s indigenous-led office at Arizona State University analyzes policy recommendations on key issues in Indian country, and they’re working on a paper that would overview Indian country in the U.S., federal broadband maps, and a consideration of indigenous “data sovereignty”­­––the argument that native lands should have more control over their data mapping to improve broadband mapping in tribal lands.

The mapping undertaking is particularly important to Trostle. “Indigenous peoples have a long tradition of mapping,” they said. “This needs to be recognized when considering how we can improve modern maps of key services, including electricity, water, and broadband.”

Trostle underscored the gap in adequate broadband mapping between tribal lands and the rest of the United States. “Indian country is the canary in the coal mine of broadband mapping,” Trostle said. “Federal data has problems for not just tribal lands, but also non-tribal rural and urban areas.” In Trostle’s view, part of the problem is “a lack of people that understand broadband or tribal lands.” Trostle said their office’s study on the inadequacy of broadband mapping on tribal lands would be available “within the next year.”

The Indigenous Connectivity Summit also featured a discussion about indigenous data sovereignty.

Jeff Doctor, impact strategist at Animikii Indigenous Tech, argued that the native American individual’s connection with their larger collective cultural group makes their data more personal in nature and should be better protected.

In tribal lands, political belonging has an influence on their community and culture and “has a part in how we think of collective rights,” he said. Doctor described how native American lands have been disadvantaged by the U.S. government.

“When you look at how colonialism operates, it’s very extractive” he said. He urged summit attendees to think about how to build rights-based technology. He suggested taking a community-centralized approach to data rights and molding tech data policy around universal human rights.

The fifth annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit held virtual sessions from October 12 to October 15, 2021. They met each year to discuss how Tribal nations can have affordable, quality, and sustainable internet access, and talk about how connectivity supports social and economic development.

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