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Infrastructure

States Should Be Encouraged to Form Public-Private Partnerships for Federal Broadband Funds

An expert panel convened by US Telecom agreed that public/private telecom partnerships are an effective use of federal broadband funds.

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Photo of Joanne Hovis taken from CTC with permission.

June 10, 2021—Encouraging public-private partnerships to tackle lacking broadband infrastructure is America’s best option at moving forward in closing the digital divide, according to a panel of policy advisors and tech industry officials.

The panelists, who convened Wednesday for a forum hosted by US Telecom, agreed that federal and state governments encouraging public-private partnerships would reduce the risks associated with private enterprise and incent the latter to better bring broadband services to unserved and underserved America.

The disincentive rests in the fact that, for private telecommunications companies, there is no reason to build costly infrastructure, such as a fiber install, to sparsely populated areas unless government aid is added in the mix to offset losses.

And this trend of public-private collaboration, which are now used as incentives for federal money, will bring about enormous possibilities in bridging the digital divide, others agree.

Unique opportunities for funding

On Tuesday, another panel hosted by the Fiber Broadband Association noted the opportunities in public-private partnerships to get going on broadband projects.

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy, said the opportunities for grant money are “enormous” on both the “federal and state” levels. “Quite extensively, in regard to these grant programs, public-private collaboration is laced through many of them,” she says. “They reward collaboration in ways that would not have been the case even just a few years ago.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced last month $288 million in grant funding for the deployment of broadband infrastructure. The NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Project aims to deploy needed broadband infrastructure in un(der)served America.

Heather Mills, a principal analyst and leader of CTC’s funding and strategies team, said the NTIA is unclear on what criteria funding will be rewarded to applicants, but that the grant favors public-private partnerships.

She noted that while the funding for this grant may be relatively small, it will limit the number of applicants who receive funding and thereby assure only the most qualified applicants receive the grant awards. She says that the most creative partnerships are the ones that will most likely win the funding.

The NTIA also announced last week $1 billion in grant funding for companies seeking to provide broadband service to un(der)served tribal land. There was no comment on whether this grant similarly will prioritize public-private partnerships.

U.S. Department of Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 established the $10-billion Capital Projects Fund to provide funding to states, territories, and tribal governments to address necessary capital projects, including broadband services. Hovis said the fund will enable states to address these projects more directly than they could by themselves.

Mills says that the CPF mandates that the states provide a plan to the U.S. Department of Treasury on how the funds will be used. Hovis says that the localized nature of the funding will lead states to award funding based upon public support. She said private companies will partner with public entities who have already gained public support in order to make themselves more attractive applicants to the state governments.

The need for broadband mapping

The FCC’s Measuring Broadband America project aims to collect data on broadband availability nationwide, but Melissa Mann, vice president of public policy and government affairs at Lumen, said at the USTelecom forum Wednesday she believes individual states are better equipped to identify their own broadband needs.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission was accused of underreporting the number of Americans lacking broadband access. BroadbandNow criticized the FCC of reporting that 14.5 million Americans lacked high-speed internet, whereas BroadbandNow projected that number to be around 42 million.

Mann says that states can be “laser-focused on unserved areas,” whereas the federal government may struggle to identify what areas need it most.

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.

Satellite

LEO Satellite Technology Should Be in All Schools, Gigabit Libraries Network Says

Satellites, at the very least, can act as backup connections, webinar heard.

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Don Means from the Gigabit Libraries Network

October 21, 2021 – Low earth orbit satellites, which are expected to help connect a portion of people who live in remote regions of the country, should be available to all libraries – even if it’s just for redundancy, the director of Gigabit Libraries Network said Thursday.

Don Means, the director of the organization that has a deal with SpaceX’s Starlink beta service to connect a “handful” of libraries, said the technology can be used as backup in the event of a disaster.

“We think this should be in every library, even if it’s a place that has a connection – this would be very valuable as a backup because consider any kind of lights out scenario in a community,” Means said. “With this system, it bypasses the local infrastructure, and if you have a power source and you have a [satellite] dish, you’re connected.”

Earlier this month, Means said libraries will need various ways to stay connected and provide access to public Wi-Fi. While the “cheapest, most equitable, most economical way to connect every community with next generation broadband is to run fiber to all of the 17,000 libraries,” Means said previously, other solutions will need to be considered where geography doesn’t allow for a direct fiber connection.

The LEO constellation is unique compared to other kinds of satellites because it hovers closer to earth, theoretically meaning it provides better connectivity and lower latency, or the time it takes for the devices to communicate with the network.

The House is waiting to vote on an infrastructure bill that will pour billions into broadband. People have debated what kinds of technology the money should go toward, with some arguing for hard wiring and others saying wireless technologies have a space at the table.

Despite having a deal with Starlink, Means said he encourages LEO satellite technology in general and not just Starlink in particular.

“We’re not advocates or agents for Starlink,” Means said, “it’s just they’re the first ones out there with this technology. There are others coming…this is a new thing, a burgeoning thing.”

Starlink said this summer it had shipped 100,000 terminals to customers.

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FCC

Housing, Public Interest Groups Oppose Multitenant Exclusivity Agreements

The FCC is looking at how to promote broadband competition and access in buildings.

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Photo of Jenna Leventoff from Internet Law & Policy Foundry

WASHINGTON, October 21, 2021 – Opponents of exclusivity arrangements that give tenants of multitenant buildings less choice of internet service provider are urging the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate all manifestations of these contracts that they say harms competition and locks landlords into burdensome long-term contracts.

While the FCC has previously banned exclusive access agreements that granted a single provider sole access to a building, it did not do so for exclusive wiring, marketing and revenue sharing arrangements. That means third party service providers cannot share the building wires with the telecom with that privilege and cannot market their services to the building’s residents.

The FCC launched a comment period in September to field arguments about what to do with these holdout issues that gave priority to ISPs. In an early submission, the internet and television association NCTA said the commission should deny all broadband providers exclusive access to these buildings, but not exclusive wiring agreements.

Internet and competitive networks association INCOMPAS said in its submission that the competitive environment has continued to suffer due to these exclusive deals and, in the case of retail shopping centers, their deals have been extended over the “last several years.”

It is asking for a complete ban on the wiring, marketing and revenue sharing arrangements, which they say “make it tougher for new entrants to effectively compete in MTEs.

“Competitive providers are still asked to participate in revenue sharing arrangements or are routinely denied access to MTEs because of exclusive wiring or marketing agreements,” INCOMPAS said, adding consumers and businesses “lose out on the faster speeds, lower pricing, and better customer service that competitors offer.”

Public Knowledge similarly said there is a lack of competition emerging from these practices that is increasing prices and restricting choice for tenants.

“Although the FCC has banned explicit exclusive agreements in multi-tenant environments (MTEs) such as apartment, condos, and office buildings, landlords and internet service providers have exploited loopholes to nevertheless create de facto monopolies in buildings,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge.

The group is asking for a ban on “all types” of these arrangements that “negatively impact consumer choice, ensuring all ISPs have access to a building’s wiring regardless of the owner, creating a ‘rocket docket’ to quickly adjudicate supposed violations, and creating a single regulatory regime for both commercial and residential MTEs.”

In a joint submission on Wednesday, Consolidated Communications Holdings and Ziply Fiber said they “often confront such anti-competitive agreements,” with revenue sharing and marketing arrangements being the most “prevalent and troublesome.

“In practice, these agreements frequently work together as a complete bar to competing providers, giving the incumbent broadband provider a de facto exclusive service agreement with respect to an MTE,” the submission said, alleging MTE owners will “explicitly cite their lucrative revenue sharing agreements with an existing provider as their reason for not allowing our companies to access their buildings” and so to not to lose out on that compensation.

Harm on building owners

For the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, exclusive wiring arrangements have not only limited choice for residents, but it has allegedly locked housing providers into “long-term onerous contracts that prohibit them from pursuing connectivity solutions, such as owner-provided broadband, at their properties.”

Members of the affordable housing group are recommending the FCC impose “reasonable standards” on such agreements, which require ISPs to offer low-cost programs or owner provided broadband at a competitive cost and give landlords an option to exit or renegotiate a contract after a certain time.

The FCC’s look into the issue comes after a bill, introduced on July 30 by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-New York, outlined plans to address exclusivity agreements between residential units and service providers, which sees providers lock out other carriers from buildings and leaving residents with only one option for internet.

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Infrastructure

Federal Communications Commission Dispenses $544 Million in Rural Broadband Funds

Funds targeted towards internet providers in areas with poor digital access across 19 states.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, October 20, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that it would authorize another $554 million for expansion of broadband service through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The funding announcement represented the finalization of a relatively small portion of the funding awarded as part of $9.3 billion granted in the first phase of the RDOF reverse auction in October and November 2020.

Together with other recent press announcements dribbling out details of RDOF awards, Wednesday’s news puts the FCC’s awards at just more than $1 billion of the $9.3 billion originally awarded at auction.

The FCC, which says that it aims to place broadband infrastructure in areas where it is not currently available, denied LTD Broadband’s petition seeking waiver of the deadline to be designated as an Eligible Telecommunication Carrier in Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota. Becoming an ETC was a necessary prerequisite to receiving RDOF funds.

The agency also denied NW Fiber’s petition seeking waiver of the deadline for submission of a post-auction “long form” application.

With the latest wave of funding, 11 internet providers will be able to bring fiber-to-home gigabit broadband service to more than 180,000 locations across 19 states.

Michigan and Georgia were the states that received the most funding in this wave with $188 and $149 million, respectively. The FCC has cited broadband expansion as an even more necessary priority since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Broadband is an essential service and during the pandemic we’ve seen just how critical it is for families, schools, hospitals and businesses to have affordable internet access,” said Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

The FCC also said that they were working to “clean up” the program and address some of the controversial aspects of RDOF funding decisions.

These decisions included:

  • Sending letters to 197 applicants concerning areas where there was evidence of existing service or questions of waste. Bidders have already chosen not to pursue support in 5,094 census blocks in response to the Commission’s letters.
  • Denying waivers for winning bidders that have not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals or prosecute their applications.  These bidders would have otherwise received more than $344 million.
  • Pulishing a list of areas where providers had defaulted, thereby making those places available for other broadband funding opportunities.
  • Conducting an exhaustive technical, financial, and legal review of all winning bidders.

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