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Broadband Communities Summit 2021 Talks Future of Connectivity, Broadband Speeds

Conference, which hosted the Digital Infrastructure Investment show, digs into pressing connectivity issues.

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NTIA's Scott Woods and Broadband Communities CEO Barbara DeGarmo.

HOUSTON, September 29, 2021 – As Broadband Breakfast held the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference, the Broadband Communities Summit that hosted the event brought together leading advocates to discuss the state of connectivity in the country and what is expected for internet speeds and technology going forward.

Scott Woods – senior broadband program specialist with the federal agency National Telecommunications and Information Administration and who led the conference with his keynote, “Envisioning our Digital Destiny” – lauded the progress that has been made since the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But he noted that progress has not been significant for everyone in society.

“Technology got most of us through the pandemic, but not all of us,” Woods stated. “Disparities became even more stark due to Covid-19.” He stated that even though many people were able to benefit from improved connectivity, elder, low-income, and non-white Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by inadequate broadband connectivity.

According to Woods, however, the NTIA is not content to sit on its hands. To rectify these inequities, the NTIA began three programs to address impacted communities. The NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, the Broadband Infrastructure program, and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot program represent more than $5 billion in funding that is being administered by the NTIA.

Broadband infrastructure must be scalable

Following Woods’ presentation, president of the Broadband Group Jeff Reiman presented on the value of “Tech-Enabled Communities.” He described technology and connectivity as “the third rail of real estate development” and “the importance of broadband has never been more clear,” he said.

Reiman stated that a recurring challenge faced by real estate developers was keeping up with technology. He explained that often an area is planned with specific technologies in mind, but by the time the project is completed, the technology it hoped to leverage may be outdated. Rather than designing projects around specific technology, Reiman advised developers to focus on building infrastructure that will enable the bandwidth demands of tomorrows’ technologies.

Additionally, Reiman addressed the ongoing discussion between aesthetics and high connectivity. Even though clients may want high density coverage for a community, Reiman explained that they may be disappointed with the aesthetics of the high number of antennas and other street furniture that will be necessary to support community-wide Wi-Fi.

Rather than compromise the aesthetics of a community or the quality of a network, Reiman suggested developers opt for high quality, targeted Wi-Fi that covers high traffic areas. Not only would this solution be cheaper, Reiman said, but it would also combine the best of both options for an overall superior and more visually pleasing service.

Technology and data for critical infrastructure

In her presentation later in the morning, Trilogy Networks chief operating officer Nancy Shemwell presented a more existential threat than real estate development: world hunger. According to Shemwell’s data, by 2050 there will be an additional 2.5 billion people on the planet—2.5 billion more mouths to feed.

Shemwell did not mince words; as it stands now, our technology infrastructure designed to facilitate enhanced agricultural yields is simply insufficient. In terms of the automated tools that are currently in use, she stated that although some of them are capable of simple tasks such as logging data and navigating around obstacles, they are not all that sophisticated, “[They have] got the capability to not run over the dog,” she joked.

To truly unlock the value of these automated technologies, Shemwell argues that farmers need access to faster networks than they currently have, and technologies like satellite will not be enough on their own. She said that to have drones capable of increasingly complex tasks, they will need up to and beyond a terabyte per hour for their level of data computation.

Shemwell predicts that to meet future demands in the agricultural sector, the U.S. must invest in technologies that will enable a minimum of 1.5 Gbps symmetrical service within the next decade.

Satellite capabilities overblown?

Rounding out the morning presentations, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association Gary Bolton came out of his corner swinging at Elon Musk, arguing that the satellite coverage offered by Starlink may actually be worse for communities than lacking coverage entirely.

Bolton explained his position, stating that as it stands now, unserved regions stand a good chance at qualifying for grants and other financial aid—whether that aid comes from a private, state, or federal sources. However, if these formerly unserved regions receive coverage from Starlink—coverage that some have deemed to be grossly insufficient—they may miss out on better opportunities to secure more reliable coverage, such as fiber optic.

Bolton stayed on brand, asserting that only fiber has the potential to serve any technologies that may be coming down.

“We do not even know what the applications are that will be coming out [in the future],” he said. Bolton has long maintained this position, in the past pointing out how nobody anticipated how a global pandemic could force the global economy inside and online.

Broadband speed standards

Bolton said two gigabits per second, symmetrical services will need to become the standard to continue to drive growth and facilitate the advent of new an ambitious services and technologies.

Despite this emphasis on speed, Bolton insisted that it is only one metric—one that is often used because it is digestible for lay consumers. He made it clear, however, that as speed continues to improve, so to must latency.

“[Speed] is only one parameter,” he said. “We need to be able to drive down latency to these [sub three millisecond] speeds.” Latency is the time it takes a device to communicate with the network.

“If it’s not fiber, it’s not broadband,” Bolton continued. “At the end of the day we really need a sustainable definition—fiber is the goals standard for everyone.”

The Broadband Communities Summit 2021 will continue, in-person and “masked-up,” from September 28 through September 30.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.

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NTIA Officials Urge Use of Agency Resources for Digital Equity Planning

Agency officials outlined helpful material for states looking to develop digital equity plans.

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Screenshot of Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at the NTIA

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials are urging states to take advantage of available resources when developing digital equity plans. 

The NTIA provides general technical assistance resources that the Commerce Department agency said both stakeholders and states will find helpful, including a list of best practices for digital inclusion activities, recommendations for preparing planning requirements, and a plan template. 

Accessing federal resources will set states on a “great path forward” to promote digital equity, said Richelle Crotty, technical assistance advisor for digital equity at an NTIA event Wednesday. 

Because stakeholder involvement is a crucial element to the program, the NTIA provides specific guidance on how to conduct accessible meetings and discuss keys to successful coalition operations.  

Stakeholder involvement cannot be overemphasized, stressed Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at NTIA. Communicate what the divide looks like in your community, share digital inclusion models and advocate for community research, she urged state leaders. 

The BEAD-DE Alignment Guide can help states align program requirements and coordinate activities across the NTIA’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and the Digital Equity Program. 

As part of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the $2.5 billion Digital Equity Program created three sub-programs to “ensure that all communities can access and use affordable, reliable high-speed Internet.” 

The first program, which is currently underway, provides $60 million for states to develop digital equity plans. The subsequent steps include $1.44 billion for implementing plans and $1.25 billion toward digital equity and inclusion activities. 

Currently, all 50 states have been awarded Digital Equity Planning Grants upwards of $4 million. Plans are required to identify the key barriers to digital equity faced by its population, measurable objectives for promoting broadband technology, steps to collaborate with key stakeholders, and a digital equity needs assessment. 

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Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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Regulation, Reporting Requirements and Oversight Can Make a Difference in Grant Applications

Several documents will improve application competitiveness, said Paul Garnett of Vernonburg Group.

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Photo of Paul Garnett, CEO of the Vernonburg Group

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 – Regulation, reporting requirements, audits, and oversight can provide serious barriers to entities looking to receive funds from various federal broadband programs, said Vernonburg Group CEO Paul Garnett in a Thursday webinar hosted by wireless provider, Telrad.

These regulatory and financial barriers can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful project, he said. It is essential that applicants prepare all necessary documentation to satisfy requirements well before applying to these programs, he continued, identifying several key barriers states may face.

Irrevocable letters of credit, a guarantee for payment which cannot be cancelled during some specified time period, provide risk mitigation for program administrators and are often a key “difference maker” in making an application more competitive, Garnett said.

Its importance was highlighted as several applicants to the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund won auctions for locations but were unable to qualify for funding due to not being able to raise irrevocable letters of credit, claimed Garnett.

Furthermore, he continued, audited financial statements spanning at least three years are often required for program applications. Regularly, applications will be rejected immediately when financial statements are omitted, he said.

Finally, although applicants may not anticipate a need, establishing lines of credit is an essential step to ensure that entities have the funding required for approved projects well in advance, said Garnett. He added that oftentimes, federal programs do not pay entities upfront but instead reimburse for expenses incurred.

Making Applications Simpler

The Vernonburg Group said it is working to make applications easier for entities by providing a simple visualization of basic mapping information in its free digital equity map released in December. Companies are able to easily create data visualizations and see correlation between national and local data sets, claimed its CEO.

The company works to help ISPs and state and local broadband program administrators identify locations eligible for funding by highlighting high scoring potential service areas on a heat map. It extracts availability, fixed broadband adoption, device ownership, and demographic statistics for any defined coverage area.

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