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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.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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