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TPI President Wallsten Defends Reverse Auction, Points to Mapping Flaws in Light of RDOF Defaults

In an interview with Broadband Breakfast, Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten blamed bad mapping for RDOF mess.



Photo of Scott Wallsten delivering his opening remarks for TPI's 2021 Aspen Conference.

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.

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BEAD Could Spur Private Investment in Network Expansion: Experts

BEAD efforts to stimulate private investment may hinge upon the availability of the Affordable Connectivity Program.



Connect Humanity's Brian Vo at the BEAD Implementation Summit

WASHINGTON, September 26, 2023 – Federal and state broadband grants can serve as catalysts for other sources of funding, experts said at the Broadband Breakfast BEAD Implementation Summit on Friday.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is providing an unprecedented amount in federal funds for expanding broadband infrastructure, but some states have estimated their allocations will fall short of the amount needed to get high-speed internet to all of their residents. 

For Steve Coran, an attorney at Lerman Senter and counsel for WISPA, the trade group for fixed wireless internet providers, previous funding programs – the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, known as RDOF, and the Connect America Fund, or CAF – are a source of hope. The certainty of federal funds, he said, has helped many of his clients secure private investments to serve rural areas.

Using that certainty “to generate additional capital investment is, I think, an underappreciated aspect of the RDOF and CAF programs,” he said.

Willie Heflin, managing director of investment firm Kinetic Ventures, said his experience investing in smaller internet service providers confirmed this. He pointed to a provider who received $187 million over 10 years from RDOF and was able to raise an additional $240 million from equity investors, including Kinetic Ventures.

“They were able to really build a company and provide services for people who weren’t getting it before,” he said.

Federally subsidized projects can also spur network expansion by making it cheaper and easier for communities to connect to nearby infrastructure, filling some of the holes left by funding programs, said Brian Vo, chief investment officer at Connect Humanity.

The extent to which BEAD projects will be able to stimulate private investment will hinge on the availability of affordability funds like the Affordable Connectivity Program, according to Blair Levin, an analyst at New Street Research and former executive director of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan.

“The single biggest delta for the economic models that will drive deployment in rural areas is whether the ACP is funded,” he said. “If it is, that makes the economics a lot easier. And if it’s not, it makes them a lot harder.”

The $14 billion program, established with the 2021 Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, provides monthly internet subsidies of $30 for low-income households and $75 for residents of Tribal lands. It is set to dry up as early as April 2024, with no clear path to refunding.

If you missed the BEAD Implementation Summit, sign up for Broadband Breakfast’s BEAD Starter Pack for $35/month (cancel anytime). You’ll get access to all the videos and each of the three Breakfast Club reports prepared for the BEAD Implementation Summit:

Already a Broadband Breakfast Club member? Watch the videos!

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State Broadband Officers Outline BEAD Implementation Efforts

Broadband heads from 5 states listed community outreach, mapping, and program deadlines as top priorities for BEAD.



State broadband officers from Arkansas, New Jersey, Maine and North Carolina at the BEAD Implementation Summit

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2023 – State broadband leaders addressed on Friday their key areas of focus as they look to allocate billions in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grants.

The conversation took place at the Broadband Breakfast BEAD Implementation Summit, along with panels of other federal grant program officials, service providers, and investors. The $42.5 billion program is getting under way, with states releasing their initial proposals for implementing it and hearing public comments. Those proposals are due to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by December 27.

Community outreach

Broadband heads cited engaging with communities – especially around challenges to broadband map data and fostering internet adoption – as being essential to the success of the program.

In New Jersey, broadband office leader Valarry Bullard and her team organized a listening tour. They go to churches and community centers to explain how high-capacity internet can play a role in people’s lives and local programs, without, she emphasized, jargon or acronyms.

“You kind of meet people where they’re at, you know?” she said.

Arkansas broadband director Glen Howie said his team went to all 75 counties in the state to explain how mapping challenges will work and work with counties to set up local broadband committees.

“You go into a county and you tell folks they have an opportunity to challenge their internet availability, they get fired up,” he said.

Mapping and data

As part of their proposals to the NTIA, states are required to outline a process for accepting challenges to the Federal Communications Commission’s map of broadband coverage. That map, now on its third iteration, is based on coverage reported by internet service providers, which is widely considered to be overstated.

Those map challenges will be crucial, both for BEAD and other federal broadband programs, the panel said. 

“It’s the foundation of all of our programs. We spend a huge amount of time on mapping,” said Angie Bailey, North Carolina’s head broadband officer. “We can’t do this work without strong, location-level mapping.”

In Maine, Andrew Butcher and the Maine Connectivity Authority have been investing in broadband mapping efforts for years, he said. A parallel mapping process to the FCC’s has helped them allocate previous broadband funds and confirm coverage reported by providers.

“It has allowed us to have a data-driven conversation, as opposed to a policy of dibs,” he said. “We want to understand where there’s service and where there’s not.”


Deadlines, both for submitting initial proposals and awarding subgrants, are on broadband leaders’ minds. Those initial proposals are being submitted in two parts, and states have one year from the approval of part II to award their entire BEAD allocations.

That has Howie’s office in Arkansas worried about completing the challenge process, grant awards, and state rulemaking before the deadline

“The one year, arbitrary timeline that we’re all under at the moment is a huge concern for us,” he said.

Taking time on the initial proposal deadlines is helping states with smaller and newer broadband offices, like Bullard’s office in New Jersey, she said, learn from other states and prepare for the task ahead of them.

“Our plan will be submitted December 27, probably at 11:59,” she said. “It’s giving us some more time for that investment. We’re learning more about our counties… we’re connecting with our community anchor institutions.” 

If you missed the BEAD Implementation Summit, sign up for Broadband Breakfast’s BEAD Starter Pack for $35/month (cancel anytime). You’ll get access to all the videos and each of the three Breakfast Club reports prepared for the BEAD Implementation Summit:

Already a Broadband Breakfast Club member? Watch the videos!

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Michigan Island Asks FCC to Require Fiber for Some Carriers

Missing out on BEAD-funded fiber could ‘materially impair’ the Beaver Island’s ability to compete, a local committee argued.



Photo of Beaver Island from the Beaver Island Boat Company.

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2023 – A small Michigan island, Beaver Island, is asking the Federal Communications Commission to require broadband carriers receiving legacy federal funds to lay fiber-optic cable, or face competition from other providers.

The 55-square mile island is the largest in Lake Michigan and had a population of 616, according to the 2021 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Beaver Island’s Joint Telecommunications Advisory Committee made the request in a September 18 filing to the FCC asking that the commission reconsider its adoption of the Enhanced Alternative Connect America Cost Model, or Enhanced ACAM. That model updates the previous allocation of federal money from the Universal Service Fund to internet providers in rural areas.

The model makes $13.5 billion available through 2028. It allows carriers to continue receiving funding if they upgrade or continue to provide service at 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) upload by 20 Mbps download – regardless of the technology they use to do so.

This, the island’s committee says, will prevent the island from being reached with fiber-optic cable, the highest capacity, most future-proof broadband technology. The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, established in 2021, allocates $42.5 billion for states to expand broadband infrastructure, but disqualifies areas already served by federal funding.

Michigan’s broadband office estimated its portion BEAD funding could provide fiber-based internet to every location in the state currently receiving less than 100 * 20 Mbps service. That covers all of Beaver Island. But the island expects its providers will take the Enhanced ACAM  money and update their older, copper-based equipment to meet speed requirements rather than compete at auction for BEAD grants to build fiber.

“Rather than assuring [sic] those areas affected by the Order will receive adequate service,” the filing reads, referring to the commission’s official adoption of the new model on September 1, “the Order instead all but guarantees they will receive a service that will quickly become outdated.”

The committee  said in its filing that in order for an Enhanced ACAM recipient to prevent an area from being eligible for BEAD funding, it should be required by the FCC to use fiber.

Providers have until September 29 to accept or deny Enhanced ACAM funding.

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