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Infrastructure

Utility Commissioners Release Draft Recommendations For Better Broadband

The NARUC Broadband Task Force said mapping, better funding program coordination and support for non-traditional providers key for broadband roll-out.

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Photo of NARUC President Brandon Presley

May 18, 2021 — A task force made up of state public service commissioners for utility services released a set of draft recommendations to help coordinate and facilitate the closing of gaps in broadband service nationwide.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Broadband Expansion Task Force, which regulates utilities including broadband, published draft recommendations that focus on improving broadband mapping, enhancing broadband program coordination, ensuring broadband providers meet their obligations, supporting non-traditional providers, and adopting broadband.

Broadband Mapping

The draft urges Congress, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission to work with states to map out where broadband development is available. It also encourages having detailed information about funds available from federal and state sources to help streamline efforts to create new projects that address developing broadband.

Enhancing Broadband Program Coordination

The draft urges an increase in participation from state commissions on projects sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, as well as state run broadband initiatives.

Ensure that Broadband Providers Meet Their Obligations

The draft also recommends the creation of a central database of telecommunications carriers will be created in order to ensure the FCC and states provide funds only to trusted companies who demonstrate the ability to follow through on their obligations.

This would also include regular testing of network speed, latency, and reliability for carriers receiving federal funding.

Support non-traditional providers

The report also recommends more support and fewer barriers for non-traditional broadband providers, including electric co-operatives and municipal utilities. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan specifies support for the latter, which has received some push-back from Republicans on fears it could stifle private competition. It also recommends a state examination for these non-traditional providers to recover costs to transport telecommunications traffic, also known as the “middle mile.”

Broadband Adoption

The organization also urges the FCC to coordinate enrollment of phone and internet service subsidy program Lifeline efforts with other federal and state programs, as well as consider transitioning the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit program into permanent increases for the Lifeline subsidy. The Lifeline program is a government subsidy that assists low-income households in securing internet and other telecom network services.

Reporter Tyler Perkins studied rhetoric and English literature, and also economics and mathematics, at the University of Utah. Although he grew up in and never left the West (both Oregon and Utah) until recently, he intends to study law and build a career on the East Coast. In his free time, he enjoys reading excellent literature and playing poor golf.

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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Infrastructure

Pandemic and Funding Programs Increasing Investments in Broadband and M&A, Conference Hears

Broadband money programs and a need for connectivity is driving capital into the space.

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The experts hosted by Broadband Breakfast at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference on September 27.

HOUSTON, September 27, 2021 – The pandemic and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure agenda are accelerating investments and mergers and acquisitions in broadband related ventures, according to panelists at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference on Monday.

Experts hosted by Broadband Breakfast said trends that are emerging from the pandemic, the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill that is now before the House and the Federal Communications Commission’s $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, are bigger and accelerated investments not just in broadband, but in non-traditional markets.

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.

“I think [the pandemic] it opened up new markets,” said Lindsay Miller, a partner at law firm Ice Miller. “Whereas for a long time investment was being made in the metropolitan areas, in the big cities, where the return on investment was pretty much certain and likely to be quick, now we’re seeing more investment in small-to-mid-sized cities and rural markets, especially because, in the pandemic, more folks may have relocated to those areas or stayed in those areas.

“So I think we’re seeing a lot of changes in terms of where these investments are taking place,” she added.

For mergers and acquisitions, James Wagar, a partner at Frontbridge Capital, noted companies are buying service providers at very high valuations and using government grants to upgrade the networks.

That strategy may benefit areas that need connectivity fast, as Ryan Carr, a partner at MC Partners, said when he described how some are using the FCC’s RDOF money. He used the example of winners of RDOF money who see that some local service providers can’t provide high enough internet speeds and so they buy the provider and just upgrade the networks.

“They view that as an easier way to get to market faster, rather than them going out and building that network all over again,” Carr said, adding it’s akin to a land grab as it’s not about a thirst for connectivity and how fast you can build out. “So you may be able to go out and buy a local WISP or local ILEC, or whatever it may be…and upgrade their infrastructure as a way to get to market faster.”

Carr added that he expects “continued M&A and a lot more institutional investor interest in this space and continued progress and accelerated investment.”

Local focus a big plus in infrastructure bill

Carr also noted that the infrastructure bill’s focus on state or city level funding, instead of being divvied out from the federal government will give more opportunities for smaller providers perhaps more attuned to their communities.

It gives a “lot of opportunity for smaller providers to access those funds, rather than it just going to a Charter or A&T. A lot of this is going to come down to, how good is your relationship with your local community and your local municipality,” Carr said.

Miller agrees, stating that this is a unique moment for partnerships and new approaches that can be taken for broadband expansion.

Wagar said in the pacific northwest, the state broadband offices are becoming more active and they “want to give the money away,” if you come with a viable plan.

The session was moderated by Drew Clark, Drew ClarkEditor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast and Of Counsel to The CommLaw Group.

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