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Mapping Issues Raised As Major Problem for Connecting Rural Communities, Experts Say

Webinar hears how critical mapping is to bridging the digital divide.

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Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly at Center for Rural Strategies.

August 23, 2021—A lack of accurate maps, data, and affordable services are slowing the ability for rural areas of the country to get adequate broadband, according to experts following a study on the matter.

Consumer Reports was joined by representatives from the Detroit Community Technology Project, the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, and the Center for Rural Strategies’ Rural Assembly to discuss issues contributing to the digital divide.

“We have a lot of data, which is great,” said Amira Dhalla, associate director for community engagement and operations with Consumer Reports. “But we need a lot more centered around communities and people who have had [inferior broadband service].”

“Broadband is a real gnarly mess,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly at Center for Rural Strategies.

“It reminds me of a necklace that is all messed up and tangled and we all have to be pulling on it in the right direction,” Coe said. She chalked up most of the of the issues facing rural areas to insufficient mapping and data, and a lack of competition leading to inflated broadband prices.

Multiple efforts, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, have been put toward bridging the digital divide in rural areas across the country, but issues persist. Even when there appears to be ample funding to address the issue, rural communities still seem to lose out, as is the case with RDOF, where auction winners continue to default on their obligations due to inaccurate maps that failed to identify already served regions.

Coe said that while the FCC is responsible for creating broadband maps, she noted that carriers play an outsized role in how data is currently collected. Coe stopped short of accusing the carriers of lying about mapping data, though she pointed to how much power they have in the data sharing dynamic.

“Whatever the FCC says is really a narrative that comes from the providers themselves,” she said. “Maps should really include the customer’s actual experience on the ground.”

Gaps in majority and minority communities

Coe also discussed the disparities in service between majority and minority communities. She stated that 70 percent of Americans only have a choice between one or two ISPs and that rural and tribal subscribers pay up to 37 percent more for broadband than those in more developed areas.

Additionally, according to Rural Assembly data, 38 percent of rural Black Americans do not have access to broadband in their homes. “They are by far one of the most underserved communities in our country,” Coe explained.

Solutions must be catered to specific issues

Coe stated that the Rural Assembly firmly rejects the notion that a “one size fits all” solution can work. “A pot of money does not necessarily address the real problems we face on the ground,” she said. “We really need to focus on rural solution.”

For any solution to be viable, Coe argued that local ownership and investment needs to be a priority, in addition to network neutrality and open access models.

This webinar came hot on the heels of Consumer Report’s “Let’s Broadband Together” initiative—a collaborative effort between Consumer Reports, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, Public Knowledge, and many other organizations—that surveyed more than 15,000 internet bills from more 30,000 participants to determine the level of service consumers are receiving relative their bill, location, salary, and other features.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Broadband Breakfast, Washington Jewish Week, and The Center Square, among other publications. He primarily covers Big Tech and spectrum policy.

Tribal Broadband

Alaska Predicted to Receive a Majority of Tribal Broadband Funds

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held Wednesday hearing exploring broadband investments in Tribal communities.

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Photo of Chairman Manuel Heart courtesy Matt Nager and KSJD Community Radio

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2022 — Alaska’s remoteness might lead the state to receive a majority of federal government funds allotted to broadband for Tribal communities.

“Alaska is going to be one of the highest areas of need,” said Hallie Bissett, executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, speaking at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

As many as 233 of Alaska’s native communities do not have access to broadband at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downline x 3 Mbps upload service, she said. “That’s unserved, everybody. Unserved. Not underserved.”

The committee’s Wednesday hearing on “Closing the Digital Divide in Native Communities Through Infrastructure Investment” aimed to collect feedback on distribution of Tribal broadband funds.

More money needs to be spent on better broadband access for education in Tribal communities. Manuel Hart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, said, “We’ve had to put in hotspots where parents can bring their students to the parking lot just to access the internet.”

Screenshot of Manuel Hart during the hearing.

Hart said his communities have no access to fiber and need fiber to every home in his community.

Panelists also discussed access to telehealth as the pandemic continues.

William Smith, a veteran and a spokesperson from the National Indian Health Board, said that if the government fiscally bolsters telehealth programs within Tribal communities, residents will be able to save money and access the healthcare they might not otherwise receive.

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FCC

FCC Announces Largest Approval Yet for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: $1 Billion

The agency said Thursday it has approved $1 billion to 69 providers in 32 states.

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Photo illustration from the Pelican Institute

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced its largest approval yet from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, greenlighting on Thursday $1 billion from a reverse auction process that ended with award announcements in December but that the new-look agency has been scrutinizing in recent months.

The agency said in a press release that this fifth round of approvals includes 69 providers who are expected to serve 518,000 locations in 32 states over 10 years. Its previous round approved $700 million worth of applications to cover 26 states. Previous rounds approved $554 million for broadband in 19 states, $311 million in 36 states, and $163 million in 21 states.

The agency still has some way to approve the entirety of the fund, as it’s asked providers that were previously awarded RDOF money in December to revisit their applications to see if the areas they have bid for are not already served. So far, a growing list have defaulted on their respective areas, some saying it was newer FCC maps that showed them what they didn’t previously know. The agency said Thursday that about 5,000 census blocks have been cleared as a result of that process.

The FCC also said Thursday it saved $350 million from winning bidders that have either failed to get state certification or didn’t follow through on their applications. In one winning bidder’s case, the FCC said Thursday Hotwire violated the application rules by changing its ownership structure.

“This latest round of funding will open up even more opportunities to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband service,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.  “Today’s actions reflect the hard work we’ve put in over the past year to ensure that applicants meet their obligations and follow our rules.  With thoughtful oversight, this program can direct funding to areas that need broadband and to providers who are qualified to do the job.”

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Rural

USDA Announces $120 Million in Broadband Infrastructure Loans and Grants

Money comes from the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Community Connect programs.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – The Agriculture Department announced Thursday the recipients of $119.7 million in broadband grants and loans.

The money comes from two rural development programs under the department, with the telecom loans program disbursing $71.1 million to four recipients and $48.6 million to 23 recipients from the Community Connect grants program.

Under the Community Connect program, eligible areas are those that do not have access to speeds of at least 10 Megabits per second download and 1 Mbps upload. Eligible criteria under the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Loan Guarantees program include rural towns with a population of 5,000 or less without telecommunications networks.

In the press release, the department used the example of how Interior Telephone Company in Alaska will use a $2.6-million grant: to build a 19-mile fiber-to-the-premises network.

The states represented are California, New Mexico, Indiana, Alaska, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

The grantees are Ponderosa Telephone, Sierra Telephone Company, Mescalero Apache Telecom, Geetingsville Tele Co., Interior Telephone Company, Byte Networking, Sharon Telephone, Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, Wabash Telephone Coop., Jo-Carroll Energy, West Kentucky Rural Telephone Coop Corp., Star Telephone Company, Easton Utilities Commission, Consolidated Telephone Company, Bay Springs Telephone Company Inc., Atlantic Telephone Membership Corp., Star Telephone Membership Corp., NTUA Wireless, Pine Telephone Company, Pine Cellular Phones, Pioneer Telephone Coop., Ben Lomand Communications LLC, iGo Technology Inc., Pembroke Telephone Cooperative, Scott County Telephone Coop., Whidbey Telephone Company, and Public Utility District 1 Lewis County.

“The investments we are announcing today will drive the creation of good-paying union jobs and grow the economy sustainably and equitably so that everyone gets ahead for decades to come,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The chunk of money is part of a larger pie worth $5.2 billion, the rest of which goes to other infrastructure programs including electric, water and environment.

In August, the department announced $167 million to improve broadband infrastructure in 12 states from its ReConnect Program.

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