ASPEN, Colorado, August 19, 2021—Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow of the Technology Policy Institute, on Monday defended the reverse auction process used to divvy up funds from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in light of winners having to default on territory that new mapping shows are adequately connected.
In an interview with Broadband Breakfast at the 2021 Aspen Conference that his organization was hosting, Wallsten said the issue with the growing number of defaults is not the process by which money was awarded, but the mapping that led to a recently increasing number of companies approaching the Federal Communications Commission with admissions the areas they promised to serve are already served. (More companies have filed defaults in recent days.)
“The FCC is taking the wrong approach to mapping,” argued Wallsten, who had a recent op-ed about his views published in The Hill. In his view, the FCC is “going too micro,” that is, trying to establish the precise coverage of exact addresses rather than simply getting accurate broadband data for an entire region or census level. He explained that this fixation on microdata contributed to areas being mapped incorrectly during the RDOF process.
Though Wallsten defended the reverse auction – which awards money to those promising to build with the least amount of subsidy – component of RDOF, he was not without his criticisms. Wallsten pointed to some of the surprising bids brought about by small companies or those using emerging technologies, such as SpaceX’s low earth orbit constellation, Starlink.
“Who ought to assume the risk?” He explained how because companies secure payment before completing the project, some argue that smaller companies bite off more than they can chew during the bidding process.
“It’s hard to say [how changing this would impact bidding strategies].”
Though Wallsten does not want to discourage innovation and the use of new technologies, he does not want taxpayers to be the party left holding the bag.
“We want new technologies—just not on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said. “If [Elon] Musk believes in Starlink, let him front the money.”
Internet speeds standards
Another topic Wallsten addressed was the recent movement for faster internet standards and symmetrical speeds.
Wallsten is calling the push for 100 Megabits per second symmetrical speeds “nonsense,” arguing that the only reason that there has been this push for symmetrical 100 Mbps, and even Gigabit speeds, is to push fiber on consumers. “There is no other reason.”
Wallsten clarified that he believes that fiber plays a critical role in networks around the country, but that nobody needs gigabit speeds. In response to the criticism that fiber will be necessary to create and maintain future-proof networks, he refuted the premise of the problem, stating that the term “future-proof” itself is loaded, and assumes that spending a lot now is inherently better than spending a lot in the future, which he argues may not be the case.
Wallsten pointed out that speed is only one aspect of a network—an aspect that, he said, receives an undo amount of attention. He stated that there are myriad other factors that may supersede speed in terms of what customers value in future networks—such as super low latency. Though he acknowledged that everyone enjoys faster internet speeds, he cautioned against diminishing returns as the speed increases.
“The difference between 1 Mbps and 5 Mbps is extraordinary—the difference between five and 25 is noticeable, but less so,” he said. “In terms of practical usage, there is very little difference between 100 Mbps and a gig.”
On the infrastructure bill
On the bipartisan infrastructure framework, Wallsten voiced his concerns that the federal government is beginning to distance itself from the reverse auction process in favor of simply giving money to the states and allowing them to distribute it as they see fit.
He reiterated that RDOF’s failings were due to inadequacies in mapping, and not the auctions process, but that politicians want to be seen as bestowing money on their constituents.
“Politicians love to give away money,” Wallsten mused.
Infrastructure Bill Brings New Focus on Decision Making at Community Level
Funneling of infrastructure funds through states differs from Obama-era broadband programs.
WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – Community broadband advocates say the ability for local governments to decide what can be done with broadband money from the recently-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the best way to manage federal funds for broadband expansion efforts.
During a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, leaders at community broadband advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance said this sets up a local community-based approach to connectivity, bypassing some of the issues with the Federal Communications Commission’s limited broadband maps.
Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher at the ILSR, said that local communities are the best source of information on where within their boundaries there are connectivity issues – far surpassing the knowledge of the FCC’s maps.
The infrastructure legislation, which became law in November, will provide a minimum of $100 million to each of the states to use toward broadband expansion. The states that have applied for American Rescue Plan money now have heaps of cash to work with fully connected their boundaries with high-speed internet.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the ILSR, said Wednesday that for many states the law “may solve almost all their rural broadband problems.”
Local approaches may also make it easier to hold accountable officials who do not effectively spend IIJA funds, Mitchell said, adding that was one component of the law that was missing from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark stated that the law’s structure of funneling money through states is noteworthy, as the notion of responsibility for individual states to enforce policy has long been a “conservative talking point.”
The panel noted that like RDOF, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program from Barack Obama’s presidency also differed from the IIJA in that it did not rely on individual states to dispense funds.
Mitchell attributes these differences in the IIJA in part to general trends toward decentralization in policy.
Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the January 19, 2022, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022, 12 Noon ET — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
Community broadband networks will play a crucial role in the implementation of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, particularly the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, and the Digital Equity Act. This vital session of Broadband Breakfast Live Online will bring our friends from MuniNetworks.org, the Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, to discuss the issues, trends and concerns they are following. What open questions remain about the IIJA rules? How do the Treasury Department’s rules on the State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program interact with the IIJA program? What concerns should community networks have about the next stages of federal funding in their states?
Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:
- DeAnne Cuellar, Community Broadband Outreach Team Lead, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter, Editor and Researcher, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, Senior Researcher, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Christopher Mitchell, Director, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
Please note: Our event on “State Broadband Officials and the Broadband Infrastructure Surge” has been moved to February 16, 2022.
- Christopher Mitchell: Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022
DeAnne Cuellar is a tech equity advocate and communications strategist from San Antonio, Texas. She served as Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s digital inclusion appointee to the City of San Antonio’s Innovation & Technology Committee, resulting in several policy and funding priorities to close the digital divide. As a social impact entrepreneur, she co-founded several cross-sector nonprofit initiatives, advocating for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for historically underrepresented communities.
Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff in October 2020 as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken is Senior Researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. He is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine. Previously, Ry worked as an Adjunct Professor of American History in Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Minnesota. Ry holds a Ph.D. in American History from Oklahoma State University.
Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Mitchell, a leading national expert on community networks, Internet access, and local broadband policies, built MuniNetworks.org, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. Its interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 600 such networks. He also hosts audio and video shows online, including Community Broadband Bits and Connect This!, and Public Knowledge presented Christopher with its Internet Protocol award in 2021, which honors those who have made significant contributions to Internet policy.
Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Carr is Wrong on the Treasury Department’s Broadband Rules
The Federal Communications Commission has no excuse for why the agency finished with the same bad data it started with.
With all due respect to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, his reaction to the Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is way off base. As I wrote last week, the rules for broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing down decision-making to the local level where people actually have the information to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson recently also responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.)
See Christopher Mitchell, Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022
The Final Rule from the Treasury Department gives broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend some of the SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The earlier draft of rules made it more complicated for networks built to address urban affordability challenges.
However, in coming out against the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr is giving voice to the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after collecting evidence of need, make broadband investments even in areas where those companies may be selling services already. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he has been reduced to chirping from the sidelines on this issue because the previous FCC, under his party’s leadership, so badly bungled broadband subsidies in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that Congress decide NTIA should administer these funds and have the state distribute them.
Nonetheless, the issues that Commissioner Carr raised are common talking points inside the Beltway and we feel that they need to be addressed.
The failure of the FCC to assemble an accurate data collection is many years in the making. No single presidential administration can take the full blame for it, but each of them could have corrected it.
President Joe Biden’s FCC is not yet fully assembled because of delays in appointment and in Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it is not clear that we are on a course for having better maps and data that will resolve these problems anytime soon.
Commissioner Carr’s Criticism
Commissioner Carr jumps immediately into the rural vs urban frame, suggesting that the Biden Administration could leave rural families behind by allowing local governments to invest in broadband in areas where an existing provider may already claim to offer service. Outlawing this practice – which he and others close to the largest cable and telephone companies call “overbuilding” – has been a major point for Republican FCC Commissioners.
- Rather than directing those dollars to the rural and other communities without any Internet infrastructure today, the Administration gives the green light for recipients to spend those funds on overbuilding existing, high-speed networks in communities that already have multiple broadband providers. This would only deepen the digital divide in this country.
Pardon me? Logically, it is not clear what exactly Commissioner Carr is griping about here. Using Maryland as an example, if Baltimore is allowed to spend some of its funds to ensure unconnected families in public housing have high-quality Internet access, it is not clear that rural Garrett County in the western part of the state is harmed. Local governments do not receive different amounts of funds based on whether they spend it on broadband or other allowable expenses.
See Christopher Mitchell and other from the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online for Wednesday, January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
States could be the issue. Perhaps Commissioner Carr is concerned that Maryland will use some of its SLFRF money for broadband and it will spend too much in urban areas rather than rural regions. That would be an historical anomaly, even though there are far more people living in urban areas than in rural areas who are not on the Internet. And yet, nearly all state and federal dollars have gone to rural areas for infrastructure improvements, with very little being spent to help the low-income families left behind in urban areas. There is no history of states prioritizing urban investments over rural.
Bad Data, Srsly?
What I found really galling though was this bit:
- It gets worse. The Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by authorizing recipients to determine whether an area lacks access to high-speed Internet service by relying on informal interviews and reports—however inaccurate those may be—rather than the broadband maps that the federal government has been funding and standing up
It is 2022. The FCC announced three weeks ago that it did not have a timeline for better maps. Many of us have complained for more than 10 years about the misleading and inaccurate collection of claims that the FCC advances as its understanding of where broadband exists in the United States.
Commissioner Carr has been an FCC Commissioner for more than four years, nearly all of that time when his agency was run by a Republican. For part of that time, the Republicans controlled the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. They have no excuse for why his party’s FCC finished with the same bad data processes it started with. No one was defending the FCC data or maps during those years, but the FCC did not bother to begin collecting new data.
Now Commissioner Carr claims that “parts of this country” have broadband services at speeds near 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. OK, Commissioner. Where? Do you have a secret list? No, these are talking points to obscure the fact that Commissioner Carr and his agency has utterly failed to track precisely what “parts of this country” actually has access to broadband.
Will I agree that most, perhaps 80 percent, of the country has access to 100 by 20 Mbps? Yes. But that doesn’t matter if no one can agree which homes are well-served. And it opens up a whole other set of questions that Carr neatly sidesteps, which is that contemporary broadband service goes beyond the academic question of whether an ISP provides that service most of the time at some price. If the price isn’t affordable, then there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Or as we like to say, if it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible. And, if the service is not very reliable, then there is a problem that must be addressed.
This is why the final rule is both necessary and good: because it allows communities the flexibility they need to address not just the gaps in infrastructure, but reliability and affordability as well. But of course Commissioner Carr should know that we do not have this information at the federal level, because I’m quite sure he opposes collecting pricing and other information. Despite the many instances in which providers have lied to the Commission in presenting the areas they offer service, Carr objects per se to local evidence gathered via interviews to understand where broadband actually is.
A Prediction: This Is Not A Problem
It is remarkable to see the amount of performative horror Commissioner Carr expresses at the prospect of a city like Baltimore using some of the Rescue Plan dollars to ensure its families in public housing are on the Internet, even if a cable provider could theoretically sell them Internet access for $75/month, or provide a subsidized service if they jump through all the right hoops. Compare that to the silence from the Commissioner when it became clear that the largest telephone companies took billions of dollars in broadband subsidies and might have forgotten to upgrade their services.
The SLFRF Treasury Rules give the appropriate amount of deference to local and state leaders to act in an utter void of information about what is available to each home. Commissioner Carr is deeply worried – because the largest cable and telephone companies are deeply worried – that some places will use these dollars to build networks that are unneeded or would create too much competition for the existing companies.
My prediction is that communities will not do this. Of course it’s not zero: a cardinal rule of dealing with large numbers of humans is that there are always outliers. But of the cities that allocate some of their SLFRF dollars to broadband infrastructure, they will overwhelmingly focus on areas where there are real affordability and reliability challenges from existing services. The reality is that very few of these investments will result in any material losses to existing ISPs, but the monopoly providers know that even modestly opening the door to locally built and operated infrastructure driven by community-driven solutions could open the floodgates to the competition they fear so much.
Commissioner Carr has spent years as one of a very small number of people that could correct the abject failure of the FCC to collect useful information about broadband deployments. The rest of us have had to move on and figure out how to work in the absence of data. The best option is to allow for local decision-making where they can collect evidence and act. And most importantly, they will have to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action in ways that FCC Commissioners often do not.
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on January 20, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
Preparing Collaboration Model, Data Collection Suggested Before Infrastructure Money Flows
With infrastructure bill, there is no longer a shortage of funds for states to expand their broadband infrastructure, consultants said.
WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – While billions in federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are still many months away, work can be done to tie-up some loose ends, including figuring out internet speed criteria and best partnerships for broadband builds, said a consultant Wednesday.
Heather Gold, founder and CEO of broadband consulting firm HBG Strategies, noted on a Broadband Bunch webinar that the $65 billion for broadband from the infrastructure bill won’t be available until next year. But she noted that infrastructure money and existing American Rescue Plan Act funding means states are no longer financially limited in their efforts to expand broadband.
That means internet service providers and states need to be thinking about how to manage this pool of funds, according to Joanne Hovis, president of engineering and consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy.
Hovis said local service providers can get ahead by choosing the right collaboration model for broadband builds. That includes partnerships with electric cooperatives, which can own wood poles on which telecoms attach their equipment, or a partnership with the local government, such as that being done in Vermont.
Hovis also encouraged data collection efforts to make broadband service prices publicly available and easily accessible knowledge, and advocated for competitive bidding processes for broadband grants that result in benefits for as many service providers as possible.
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