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Craig Settles: What You Need to Know About Broadband Success From 3 NTIA Grant Programs

For broadband success, argues esteemed broadband consultant Craig Settles, “tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”

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The author of this Expert Opinion is broadband expert and industry analyst Craig Settles

Sy Oliver and Trummy Young’s jazz song, ‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It),” was first recorded in 1939. But, as applied to broadband success, its message rings loud and true today.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has three broadband programs totaling over $1.5 billion. NTIA’s grants tackle populations with some of the most intractable barriers to getting across the divide. But is it enough? Is it targeting the right goals?

This coming week at Mountain Connect, local government and community leaders, ISPs, contractors, and government agencies are convening, many on the hunt for money. Attendees will hear about NTIA and other agency grants, but will they get tips on how to best structure the execution of those projects?

“This influx of spending will improve the awareness of digital equity as a fundamental issue,” says Pete Pizzutillo of ETI Software and host of ETI’s Broadband Bunch. “By shifting our thinking from ‘internet access for all” to “Build the best digital infrastructure to support healthcare, education, and a more vital digital economy,” we can reframe our investment thinking.” When the focus is on building superior healthcare delivery infrastructure, for example, by default we will have internet access for all.

Connecting Minority Communities Program

NTIA’s $285-million CMC pilot program takes on digital disparity by providing grants to eligible Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges or Universities (TCUs), and minority serving institutions (MSIs).

This is not a typical infrastructure buildout program but one devoted to broadband adoption. If an institution wants to, they can propose a one-time capital investment into infrastructure that expands their current broadband capabilities and connectivity. Otherwise, the institution can purchase or lease eligible equipment and devices for students’ in-person or remote education at the colleges.

Doubly beneficial and atypical is the impact on community economic development around the colleges. Broadband grants to colleges typically stop with the institutions. CMC strengthens broadband capabilities of minority-owed businesses and nonprofits in a 15-mile radius by underwriting services and equipment, Plus, they hire and train IT personnel to support the technology of these entities. This enhances colleges’ relationships with their communities as well as boosts the local business ecosystems that can generate more jobs.

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

NTIA says its $980-million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program will provide grants to expand regular and remote broadband access and adoption by tribal governments, tribal organizations, tribal colleges or universities, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands on behalf of the Native Hawaiian Community, and Native Corporations. Grant applications are due no later than September 1, 2021.

The American Library Association says seven in 10 residents on rural tribal lands don’t have access to fixed high-capacity broadband. Not only do these residents lack good broadband, a good portion of tribal lands don’t even have a cell phone signal.

NTIA has put a priority on types of broadband services that “stimulates the adoption and use of broadband services for telehealth, remote learning, telework and entrepreneurship, economic growth, and job creation.” In fact, NTIA mentions telehealth rather prominently, as well they should to address the dramatic need for improved healthcare that telehealth could produce.

The Economist recently reported, “Their life expectancy is 4.4 years below the American average and they have the highest rates of pre-existing health conditions out of any ethnic or racial group in America. Unlike other groups, Native Americans are entitled to healthcare from the federal government, but the system is poorly run and funded.”

Broadband Infrastructure Program

This $288-million Broadband Infrastructure Program is a rural grant program that excludes counties, cities, or towns with a population of more than 50,000 inhabitants, or urbanized areas contiguous and adjacent to a city or town of more than 50,000 inhabitants.

In what is good news for communities, municipalities, nonprofits, or co-ops that own or operate broadband networks are encouraged to participate, but only a public entity can apply for the grant. NTIA added a variation called “covered partnerships“ between a state, county or a city and a fixed broadband service. Partnerships can include more than one provider, and providers can be part of more than one partnership.

Grant guidelines demand a faster definition of broadband. In this case, applicants must build networks with a download speed of not less than 100 megabits per second, and an upload speed of not less than 20 megabits per second. Proposals are being accepted through August 17, 2021.

A huge additional benefit is, “An eligible service area for a project is a census block in which broadband service is not available at one or more households or businesses in the census block.” A big flaw of broadband maps is when one resident in a census block receiving broadband means the entire census block is “covered.” That fallacy keeps some communities forever despairing for broadband.

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses with community stakeholders who want broadband networks to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. He hosts the radio talk show Gigabit Nation, and is Director of Communities United for Broadband, a national grass roots effort to assist communities launching their networks. He recently created a guide to help librarians uncover patrons’ healthcare needs, create community health milestones and effectively market telehealth. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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.

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses with community stakeholders who want broadband networks to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. He hosts the radio talk show Gigabit Nation, and is Director of Communities United for Broadband, a national grass roots effort to assist communities launching their networks. He recently created a guide to help librarians uncover patrons’ healthcare needs, create community health milestones and effectively market telehealth.

Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Broadband's Impact

USC, CETF Collaborate on Research for Broadband Affordability

Advisory panel includes leaders in broadband and a chief economist at the FCC.

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Hernan Galperin of USC's Annenberg School

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2021 – Researchers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the California Emerging Technology Fund is partnering to recommend strategies for bringing affordable broadband to all Americans.

In a press release on Tuesday, the university’s school of communications and journalism and the CETF will be guided by an expert advisory panel, “whose members include highly respected leaders in government, academia, foundations and non-profit and consumer-focused organizations.”

Members of the advisory panel include a chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, digital inclusion experts, broadband advisors to governors, professors and deans, and other public interest organizations.

“With the federal government and states committing billions to broadband in the near term, there is a unique window of opportunity to connect millions of low-income Americans to the infrastructure they need to thrive in the 21st century,” Hernan Galperin, a professor at the school, said in the release.

“However, we need to make sure public funds are used effectively, and that subsidies are distributed in an equitable and sustainable manner,” he added. “This research program will contribute to achieve these goals by providing evidence-based recommendations about the most cost-effective ways to make these historic investments in broadband work for all.”

The CETF and USC have collaborated before on surveys about broadband adoption. In a series of said surveys recently, the organizations found disparities along income levels, as lower-income families reported lower levels of technology adoption, despite improvement over the course of the pandemic.

The surveys also showed that access to connected devices was growing, but racial minorities are still disproportionately impacted by the digital divide.

The collaboration comes before the House is expected to vote on a massive infrastructure package that includes $65 billion for broadband. Observers and experts have noted the package’s vision for flexibility, but some are concerned about the details of how that money will be spent going forward.

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Broadband's Impact

Technology Policy Institute Introduces Data Index to Help Identify Connectivity-Deprived Areas

The Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple datasets to try to get a better understanding of well- and under-connected areas in the U.S.

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Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute

WASHINGTON, September 16, 2021 – The Technology Policy Institute introduced Thursday a broadband data index that it said could help policymakers study areas across the country with inadequate connectivity.

The TPI said the Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple broadband datasets to compare overall connectivity “objectively and consistently across any geographic areas.” It said it will be adding it soon into its TPI Broadband Map.

The BCI uses a “machine learning principal components analysis” to take into account the share of households that can access fixed speeds the federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload and 100/25 – which is calculated based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data with the American Community Survey – while also using download speed data from Ookla, Microsoft data for share of households with 25/3, and the share of households with a broadband subscription, which comes from the American Community Survey.

The BCI has a range of zero to 10, where zero is the worst connected and 10 is the best. It found that Falls Church, Virginia was the county with the highest score with the following characteristic: 99 percent of households have access to at least 100/25, 100 percent of households connect to Microsoft services at 25/3, the average fixed download speed is 243 Mbps in Ookla in the second quarter of this year, and 94 percent of households have a fixed internet connection.

Meanwhile, the worst-connected county is Echols County in Georgia. None of the population has access to a fixed connection of 25/3, which doesn’t include satellite connectivity, three percent connect to Microsoft’s servers at 25/3, the average download speed is 7 Mbps, and only 47 percent of households have an internet connection. It notes that service providers won $3.6 million out of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide service in this county.

“Policymakers could use this index to identify areas that require a closer look. Perhaps any county below, say, the fifth percentile, for example, would be places to spend effort trying to understand,” the TPI said.

“We don’t claim that this index is the perfect indicator of connectivity, or even the best one we can create,” TPI added. “In some cases, it might magnify errors, particularly if multiple datasets include errors in the same area.

“We’re still fine-tuning it to reduce error to the extent possible and ensure the index truly captures useful information. Still, this preliminary exercise shows that it is possible to obtain new information on connectivity with existing datasets rather than relying only on future, extremely expensive data.”

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