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Community Involvement In Broadband Infrastructure Projects Critical, Panelists Say

Panelists share experiences of building broadband projects with the backing of the community.

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May 20, 2021—Panelists at the Net Inclusion 2021 conference on Wednesday pointed to how important community is to cementing broadband infrastructure projects.

The discussion ranged from discussing community support, motivation, and challenges of connecting the unconnected.

The pandemic brought out a call for action within the communities. Panelist Casey Sorensen of PCs for People gave the example of Minnesota University hospital donating its roof for broadband infrastructure. Sorensen also pointed to the example of a farmer donating part of his land so the students in his rural community could continue with a remote education.

Angela Thi Bennett, the administrative director of DigitalC, a non-profit community-based wireless internet service provider, shared her experience of immense growth because of Cleveland’s initiative that donated both rooftop and window access for broadband coverage.

Bennett shared that while access to the rooftop and windows was a solution, they still had the problem of “making sure affordable is actually affordable, according to the context of the neighborhood.”

Cruz said this pandemic taught her the importance of ensuring broadband infrastructure is there for the next emergency.

“It’s about infrastructure for now and the future,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point Community Development Corporation.

Reporter Sophie Draayer, a native Las Vegan, studied strategic communication and political science at the University of Utah. In her free time, she plays mahjong, learns new songs on the guitar, and binge-watches true-crime docuseries on Netflix.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure Bill Opportunity to Show Efficiency of Shared Infrastructure, Conference Hears

Broadband expansion can happen fast if grant money includes stipulations to share infrastructure, Jonathan Adelstein says.

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Jonathan Adelstein, on screen, Earl Peek and Deborah Simpier, seated.

HOUSTON, September 28, 2021 – The infrastructure bill can go a long way if municipalities that receive the billions in funding require grant recipients to share the network with other providers, said the president of the Wireless Industry Association.

“In order to incentivize competition, municipalities might look to ask grant applicants, can they provide shared infrastructure? Are you funding a shared infrastructure model where multiple competitors could come in?” Jonathan Adelstein asked Monday at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference.

“Colocation is the fastest way to get that done,” he emphasized, adding broadband is just like “real estate with a technology overlay.”

The House is possibly looking at a Thursday vote for the infrastructure bill passed by the Senate in August. Available for broadband in the package is $65 billion. Adelstein said this is the opportunity to make efficient use of the money by sharing the infrastructure and not overbuilding.

Efficiency is one of the main drivers of colocation, Adelstein argues. “Municipalities have been very smart about promoting colocation, for example, so there’s not tower farms like there are overseas.” Because of these evident efficiencies, colocation and shared infrastructure has become the preferred method of both investors and policymakers, he said.

“Cities are thinking about smart city applications,” said Deborah Simpier, co-founder and CEO of Althea Networks. “When you think about infrastructure we need to start thinking more in a holistic sense. Existing assets can be leveraged for broadband, for smart cities applications and even mobility to your handsets. The shift with shared infrastructure is that instead of thinking just about broadband in a silo or just handset or mobility, we can think about networks holistically.”

Earl Peek, founder and managing partner of Diamond Ventures and Peek LLC, said that in his conversations with small town mayors, assistant secretaries in the interior and treasury departments and the governor of Michigan, he found that, “there’s a lot of shareable infrastructure from the United States in the parks, federal buildings, and army bases that have been closed. Those can be repurposed and used for sharable infrastructure.”

“There’s so many assets to be shared. There’s so many ways we can deploy faster and not just wait for the infrastructure,” Peek said.

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Infrastructure

Focus of Broadband Expansion Should Be On Last Mile, Says President of CETF

Open access to middle mile infrastructure will help deliver services at the last mile, CETF says.

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Nate Walowitz of Colorado, Chris Mitchell of Institute for Local Self Reliance, and Chris Walker of NoaNet at Digital Infrastructure Investment

HOUSTON, September 28, 2021 – Sunne Wright McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, said Monday that stakeholders interested in expanding broadband rollout should focus on the last mile, the stretch of cable that goes to homes and businesses, by using existing middle mile infrastructure.

“I would rather leverage the resources and infrastructure they’ve [internet service providers] already built – that we as taxpayers and ratepayers have already paid for – and tap into that in order to focus on last-mile,” McPeak said at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 was hosted as an online and in person conference by Broadband Breakfast at the Broadband Communities Summit. The recording of the Monday event is available for registration and replay.

This year’s conference heard from proponents of the open access model, which allows telecommunications providers to ride on the existing infrastructure to boost competition, lower prices, and broaden connectivity.

McPeak said she supports the open access model to deliver on what she said should be a focus: on the last mile to businesses and homes – and especially to California’s large native American population and tribal lands.

“There has to be a discipline in our lenses of getting to last mile unserved, and in California that includes all our tribal lands,” McPeak said. “We have more federally recognized tribal governments than any other state and more native Americans than any other state. And so, if we don’t focus on last mile, we will not be as efficient in our investments in middle mile. And of course, we also support open access for middle mile.

“Every dollar that we don’t have to duplicate in middle mile, although there’s going to be a middle mile network, we can get to last mile.”

For Nate Walowitz, regional broadband program director for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, opening access to infrastructure will entail realities that may not sound pleasant. “Coopetition,” he said. “Sometimes you’re a cooperator, sometimes you’re a competitor, and it doesn’t really matter h ow that partnership plays out because the reality is, in the business we’re in, we can’t all find a way to make money necessarily in a lot of our markets across large service areas…unless we take a strategy where we look for solid partnerships where it’s complimentary.”

Matt Schmit, director of the office of broadband in Illinois, said that the key is a “balance between last mile and middle mile expansion, and I think the kind of partnerships we’ve forged vary, from one focus to the next, but it really is that complimentary effort that’s going to get the job done in Illinois.”

Partnerships with telecoms

McPeak said partnerships between municipalities and telecoms starts with an understanding of each’s core competencies. Telecoms, she said, are generally good at delivering telecommunications services and maintaining the network, but it also has to ensure that it is setting quality standards and deploying in hard-to-reach areas while offering affordable services for low-income households. “Those are the kinds of things that have to be done in tough negotiations,” she said.

Chris Walker, senior executive director of infrastructure strategy at the Northwest Open Access Network, said governments and telecoms each have their own things that they are great at, and exploiting those things will benefit all. That, he said, includes governments being great at handling infrastructure and the private sector being very good at innovating.

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Open Access

Counties, Private Providers Clash Over Merits of Open Access Networks

Counties see it as a way to increase competition and lower prices, while telecoms see money and quality problems.

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From left to right: John Burchett, Carter Old, and Ramiro Gonzales at Digital Infrastructure Investment

HOUSTON, September 28, 2021 – Tensions emerged Monday when the topic of open access networks pitted municipalities in favor and private companies against the idea of sharing infrastructure with other telecoms.

The Digital Infrastructure Investment conference hosted by Broadband Breakfast heard how counties favor open access networks to drive connectivity, competition among providers, and make internet access more affordable.

“We’re certainly in favor of open access,” said Julie Wheeler, president commissioner of York County, Pennsylvania, noting that affordability and access were York County’s chief priorities. She said York took advantage of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding they received last year to build a 16-mile dark fiber backbone. The county is now focused on building out their middle mile infrastructure.

Ramiro Gonzalez, director of government and community affairs for the City of Brownsville, is working to bring Brownsville away from being the least connected city in America. His team’s action plan was created during the pandemic working through many models and opportunities. They have allocated 19.5 million dollars into building the middle mile network for Brownsville.

“The middle mile will provide resiliency to all our buildings” and utilities, said Gonzalez. He says the city saw the most value in building middle mile infrastructure and then opening the infrastructure to investors to grow the network from there.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 was hosted as an online and in person conference by Broadband Breakfast at the Broadband Communities Summit. The recording of the Monday event is available for registration and replay.

Open access networks have been a topic of great interest, as cities and states try to figure out how to expand broadband infrastructure. The broadband portion of the infrastructure bill that is expected to be voted on in the House on Thursday will give money to the states and cities to divide. Telecoms have been concerned that builds by municipalities, who then allow other telecoms to ride on it, would effectively replace the incumbents. Republicans in some states have even sought to limit community networks.

But some have suggested that the issue must be framed as more cooperation with providers rather than an existential crisis for them, while others have even said municipal broadband networks with open access provisions could help alleviate competition fears.

Private companies signal issues with open access

Carter Old, co-founder and president for Tachus LLC, approaches networks with one hundred percent buried fiber due to events like hurricanes and floods that have been a tragic part of the recent history of Houston, where Tachus primarily operates.

Tachus’ strategy is to bring a “blazing fast pipe of internet” and from there “allow the customer” to decide what internet experience to bring to their home. “In order to deliver hands down the best customer experience,” said Old, “we feel that owning and maintaining our network is the best way to do that.”

For Ting Internet’s Monica Webb, having too many providers on the same pipeline could potentially create a financial problem whereby a price war would leave some providers without much profit.

John Burchett, head of public policy for Google Access and Google Fiber, noted that building broadband infrastructure is slow, and that Google Fiber is “picking up steam” to penetrate suburbs and small towns.

“With every passing day there’s a new model out there,” he said, stating that there are many paths to building broadband infrastructure. Though he said that Google would be interested in providing an open access network on which it would compete against other providers, he clarified that, “I don’t think you’re going to find any provider who will build a fully open access model,” though he made clear that Google has offered service on shared or leased networks before.

One problem Burchett raised is the lack of choice that the majority of America is facing, alluding to a middle ground between local monopoly and an over-saturated market.

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