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Start Your Own ISP Lowers Barrier to Establishing Wireless Internet Service Providers

Start Your Own ISP founder discusses how WISP technology enables rural communities to access broadband.

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Start Your Own ISP's Graham Castleton

June 8, 2021–A company that helps wireless internet service providers get off the ground has been integral to getting communities connected during the pandemic.

Graham Castleton founded Start Your Own ISP to educate local communities on how to bring broadband to communities, as education has often been an overlooked aspect of the building process.

“Once the pandemic hit, it reinforced the broadband gap,” Castleton said at Connectivity Con 2021 on Friday. “People could not go to school or go to work. This ramped up interest from people in building something in their community.” Knowing your people need better broadband is half the battle. States and city governments come asking how to meet their constituents’ demands, he said.

A project in Taliaferro, Georgia exemplifies the approach SYOISP takes in bolstering connectivity. With a population of 1700, Taliaferro is one of the poorest, most rural counties in the state.

The Georgia Cyber Center partnered with Start Your Own ISP to figure out how to connect one of the hardest places to reach. In rural areas like Taliaferro, a combination of sparsely populated residences, an abundance of trees, and low economic development make it geographically and financially difficult to connect them to high-speed broadband. Their work establishes an effort to set up wireless access points in rural homes, whose research Graham states will be open access for other localities to replicate.

Castleton spoke about the ways in which WISPs solve connectivity gaps, especially in rural and remote areas. He said that in areas such as in Texas, he saw “people were coming from the town, in a parking lot trying to get Internet outside the library.”

As Graham says, “during the pandemic, schools were closed, but students [went] there, or to McDonald’s trying to get service.” His organization consults localities to add wireless hotspots in public areas such as libraries and main streets, where more users can access WiFi outside of school or work.

While challenges linger in improving access, cases such as that of Taliaferro and in Texas will serve as a model for how to reach those most underserved.

Reporter Uhunoma Edamwen, from Richmond, Virginia, earned his Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. Working towards a Masters in Public Administration, he has performed communications and research work and aims to continue his career in the public interest arena with a focus on technology policy. Uhunoma enjoys podcasts, gaming, spicy foods, and fighting for better, high-speed broadband for everyone.

WISP

In First In-Person Event Since Pandemic, WISPA Conference Discusses Infrastructure, Mapping

WISPA holds first trade show in two years, which touched upon broadband infrastructure, mapping, spectrum and other topics.

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Broadband Breakfast photos from WISPAmerica

GRAPEVINE, Texas, April 27, 2021 – For the first time since 2019, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association held an in-person live trade show, which touched on President Joe Biden’s broadband plan, spectrum policy and mapping.

“I can’t tell you all how happy I am to see you here today,” said WISPA CEO Claude Aiken during the WISPAmerica 2021 kickoff event on Tuesday.  “It’s been a tough year, and I’m so proud and thankful to be part of an industry that has helped America stay on its feet during these incredibly trying times. It’s just great to be back!”

Aiken spoke on the benefits the broadband industry has seen recently. It’s been a great couple of years, both for legislation and regulation, he said. We’ve seen billions of dollars in federal funding and benefits in expanded spectrum and Over-the-Air Reception Device rules, he said.

He also praised the ‘use-it-or-share-it’ concept that has allowed more access to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum band. We continue to advocate for this concept on Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission, he said.

WISPA CEO Claude Aiken, right

Aiken criticized the idea that “future proofing” networks should focus only on fiber infrastructure, referencing the Biden administration’s new $100 billion broadband proposal that hints at emphasizing fiber over other technology. Fixed wireless can also be future proof, we know we can hit gigabit speeds with wireless, he said. Fiber is very important, but we should use the right technology for the job, and just “picking one technology over another is subpar, policy-wise,” he said.

FCC’s new Broadband Data Collection

In a separate panel during Tuesday’s event US Telecom’s Lynn Follansbee and James Stegeman from CostQuest laid out the details for the FCC’s new Broadband Data Collection (formerly called the Digital Opportunity Data Collection) that will replace the current Form 477 that all providers are required to submit.

The new BDC will create a new ‘fabric’ data set that is intended to greatly enhance the FCC’s broadband mapping system. The agency considers any speed below 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload as unserved, and the Form 477 data shows where those unserved areas are.

The problem, however, is that the data only gets down to the census block level, potentially leaving millions of Americans without any service, especially in rural areas where census blocks can span dozens of miles. The BDC improves on this by using more granular data with geographic coordinates, addresses or polygon shapefiles.

The BDC also includes many updated requirements for fixed wireless providers, including greater details on tower locations, strength of signal and latency, and requiring certification by an engineer, among other stipulations. It also provides a new process available for consumers to challenge the accuracy of the broadband maps submitted by their service providers.

The change in submission rules for wireless providers raised some concerns during the WISPA panel, with one audience member complaining that the government was asking too much of small providers, especially the need for certification by an engineer, calling the new requirements “stupid” and unnecessary.

The WISPAmerica conference continues on Wednesday and Thursday.

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Expert Opinion

Gerard Lederer and McKenzie Schnell: FCC Continues to Undercut Local Authority on OTARD

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The authors of this Expert Opinion are Gerard Lederer and McKenzie Schnell

The Federal Communications Commission’s over-the-air reception devices (known as OTARD) rules limit local governments’, homeowner associations’ and condominium boards’ oversight authority over certain antennas and satellite dishes for certain size specifications.

In the Primary Purpose Report and Order released on January 7, the FCC expanded its rules to eliminate the primary purpose test used to justify the deployment of an OTARD. In addition, on January 11, the FCC released an Order pertaining to a City of Chicago ordinance that reaffirmed its 2018 Philadelphia Order by striking down Chicago’s satellite placement and removal ordinance.

In doing so, the FCC kept its perfect record in place: It has never ruled to uphold a single ordinance or private restriction brought before it.

The growth of OTARD rules

Adopted in response to Section 207 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the OTARD rules prohibit state, local and private restrictions that unreasonably impair the ability of the users of antennas that are one meter or less in diameter to deploy OTARDs on property under their exclusive use or control and in which the user has ownership or leasehold interest.

Specifically, it applies to those restrictions that (1) unreasonably delay or prevent installation, maintenance or use; (2) unreasonably increase the cost of installation, maintenance or use; or (3) preclude reception of an acceptable quality signal.

Restrictions prohibited by the OTARD rule include lease provisions, restrictions imposed by state or local laws or regulations, private covenants, contract provisions and even homeowner’s association rules. There is an exception, however, to any OTARD rule restrictions necessary for safety and historic preservation purposes.

The original OTARD rule provided protections for devices used to receive video programming signals. But in its 2000 Report and Order, the FCC expanded the rule to include customer-end devices capable of not only receiving fixed wireless signals, but also devices that had transmission capability.

Fixed wireless signals are those wireless signals that are used in the provision of voice, video and data services to a fixed location. In 2004, the FCC issued another Report and Order expanding the rules to protect hub and relay antennas so long as they were installed for the primary purpose to serve the user on whose premises the device is deployed.

Until this recent Primary Purpose Order, one could argue that an OTARD had to have as its primary purpose providing service to the user on whose premises the OTARD is deployed. But the FCC now makes clear that – in fact – the primary purpose for the installation no longer matters.

All hubs are covered by the revised rule, so long as they meet the rest of the OTARD requirements and serve a user on the premises.

Chicago had to wait 9 years for its order

Given the growth of the OTARD rules, it is of little surprise that local agency ordinances have had a hard time keeping up. Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston each adopted OTARD ordinances to address the placement of satellite dishes and a requirement that they be removed for public safety purposes when no longer in use.

Each of these ordinances were challenged by the satellite television industry (complaints were not filed by an individual dish owner), and pursuant to the automatic stay rule. Each of the ordinances was put on hold while the FCC reviewed the matter. Philadelphia had to wait seven years for its decision. Chicago had to wait nine for its decision, and Boston is still waiting for the opportunity to even defend its ordinance nine years after its ordinance had been challenged.

Despite the OTARD rules’ specific preservation of local authority to protect public safety, the FCC has consistently ruled against OTARD ordinances that relied on that reservation of authority, which was ultimately the case for Philadelphia and Chicago ordinance reviews.

In light of this, local authorities might want to consider addressing the placement and removal of satellite dishes under general rules on external placements of devices that exist today in their zoning and or building codes rather than adopting OTARD-specific rules. For instance, are there rules currently in place that address exterior lighting and how it must be deployed to minimize visual clutter? Are there other external deployments that have to be removed if they become inoperable? When and why are stealth deployments required for other exterior attachments and are their requirements for certification of installers?

Is this a guaranteed winning strategy? The answer to that is not clear, but the FCC seems at least to encourage local government to look to their general police powers to enforce OTARD removal, as noted in the January Declaratory Order where it states that “[A] city may have other means under its local police power to address out-of-service satellite dishes that present a safety hazard or encroach into the public area.”

Gerard Lavery Lederer is a Partner in Best Best & Krieger’s Municipal Law practice group in the firm’s Washington office. Gerry advocates for the rights of public and private property owners with respect to issues of law and policy arising from federal and state communications legislation and regulation. He also serves as legislative counsel and lead Washington advocate for TeleCommUnity, a collection of local governments dedicated to ensuring respect for local rights in federal legislative and regulatory activity.

McKenzie Schnell is an Associate in Best Best & Krieger’s Municipal Law practice group in the firm’s Washington office. McKenzie advises clients on broadband, cable, telecommunications service and data privacy matters, including regulatory compliance, transactions and litigation. She represents public agencies and small private entities at all stages of their  communications projects from infrastructure matters to network practices.

This Expert Opinion is a version of a legal alert, republished by permission of the authors.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Rural

Advocates for Rural Broadband Providers Commiserate on Flaws in Federal Approach to Funding

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Screenshot of participants in the Thursday afternoon session at NTCA's virtual event

September 23, 2020 – Individuals representing different facets of rural broadband – traditional telecom companies, rural electric utilities, wireless providers and state regulators – on Thursday voiced concerns about aspects of the federal government’s rural broadband programs.

Many of these players have run into difficulty in spite of promised federal funding, they said during the third day of the virtual event of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association. They also vented frustrations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, as well as the Federal Communications Commission.

“We were disappointed when [Rural Digital Opportunity Fund] came along and the FCC said at the last minute that anywhere that’s gotten state funds is off the map for the RDOF,” said Brian O’Hara, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“A lot of times the state funds aren’t enough to build a network,” O’Hara continued. “They’re not a big pot of money, so if they could get extra money to give those levels a higher level of service, it just makes sense” to include state and federal funds together.

O’Hara said that 32 electric coops won bids for about $30 million in the prior Connect America Fund, Phase II, auction that took place in 2018.

“Since the last auction there’s been three times as much demand for [rural broadband] auctions, so we need more,” said O’Hara.

Steve Coran of Lerman Senter, which works with wireless internet providers said “some of our members have successfully obtained state money through the CARES Act” that was relatively free from bureaucratic strings. That is not the case with the Connect America Fund or the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, he said.

He added that wireless providers who have applied for Reconnect money “aren’t very happy.”

“My personal view is there’s a little bit of a bias for those who have traditionally been in front of RUS and proposed fiber builds and I’ve seen a lot of that money going to the co-ops,” said Coran.

Yet he praised the Connect America Fund process of the FCC as “open[ing] the door for a ton of private investment to come into our members.”

States such as South Dakota and Nebraska have also looked to the government for funding.

“In 2019 the governor of South Dakota asked the legislature for an appropriation to provide state money for a broadband program, and it was very successful,” said Chris Nelson, public utilities commissioner for South Dakota.

Nebraska has taken a different approach, creating their own state universal service fund. This fund collects a fee from all telephone users in the state.

Crystal Rhoades, a Nebraska Public Service Commissioner, said that her agency used FCC Forum 477 data to determine and analyze where to spend state funds.

There are many issues still facing rural broadband providers.

Rhoades said that because of the high cost for deploying rural broadband, there are policy disagreements on whether to use fiber or fixed wireless, as well as debate on whether state and federal funds “should be given for ongoing operational expenses versus capital expenditures for further deployment.”

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