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Citing Flexibility, Broadband Breakfast Panelists Double-Down in Support for Infrastructure Bill

Panel with broadband and wireless industry lobbyists wrestle with need for symmetrical internet, and press for fiber.

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September 1, 2021 – Panelists hosted by Broadband Breakfast Wednesday said the Senate-passed infrastructure bill’s flexibility – with its speed threshold parameters and grants to states – will ensure the focus is on future-proofed networks.

The bill, which will be up for either a House amendment or vote later this month, allocates $65 billion to broadband – a chunk of which is portioned out to be delivered to the states – and sets as “underserved” areas without 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload while keeping the current federal definition of 25 Mbps x 3 Mbps as “unserved.”

The definitions surrounding the speed threshold in the bill, the head of the Fiber Broadband Association said Wednesday, is critical to allow for the flexibility to not only get those areas connected soon but to allow for scale in the future.

“I call it ratcheting,” Gary Bolton said. “If you put the underserved at too high levels then the concern was that people would cherry pick and do the easier, lower-cost to build areas and still leave the hardest-to-reach people left out. And so there was a lot of focus on, okay let’s make sure we prioritize reaching unserved as the old definition of 25 x 3 and then let underserved be 100 x 20.”

Bolton told Broadband Breakfast last week that, eventually, the market, which is building toward deploying fiber plus the investments and speed thresholds in the bill will mean that the country will be moving quickly toward symmetrical internet, where the upload matches the download speed.

Matthew Polka, president and CEO of ACA Connects, which represents small to medium independent communications companies, said the bill strikes a “reasonable balance” that is the “best opportunity to close the digital divide,” with a focus on adoption and deployment, as well as the ability of states to control their destiny and to ensure that the money doesn’t overlap with other programs.

Debate on symmetrical speeds

But whether symmetrical speeds are needed, at least in the near term, was a point debated Wednesday.

President Joe Biden’s original infrastructure proposal in March pledged 100 x 100 speeds, which worried at least one former Federal Communications Commissioner, who said earlier this year that requiring those kinds of speeds – similar to what Bolton said – would leave behind those areas that are barely getting the federal baseline.

Chip Pickering, the CEO of INCOMPAS, a trade association dedicated to addressing competition in the industry, said Wednesday that the way toward future networks is to subsidize those networks, not put generational federal money into older technologies. That means moving from coaxial to fiber and asymmetrical to symmetrical, he said.

“What we’re seeing in the marketplace is today’s consumer may have this disparity between upload and download. But the applications of the future, and what we’ve seen during the pandemic, is a much greater need for symmetrical service,” Pickering said.

“If you look at the applications of the future, more and more symmetrical services as the base and foundation at work,” he added.

Molly O’Leary, director of government affairs at NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, said the funding this time around should be used to invest in bigger goals.

“We keep doing this incremental approach where, first we build to 10 x 1, then 25 x 3, we really need to aim high and do a lot better than we have and finally solve this once and for all,” she said, adding “100 x 100 symmetrical really, we’re talking about fiber here and that’s scalable, it’s reliable and over the long run, it will be cost efficient, too.”

While Jonathan Adelstein, the president and CEO of the Wireless Industry Association, said wireless networks are configured to accommodate consumer needs today – not necessarily what they need in the future. He noted that his organization hasn’t seen a dramatic increase in need for upload speeds, and that the 20 Mbps in the bill would be more than enough to accommodate current demand.

Configuring wireless networks to accommodate higher upload speeds, he added, could potentially mean sacrificing download speed, and that’s currently not what the market is asking for.

“The key is to allow policymakers to determine what’s best for their community based on who is in a position to provide that service,” Adelstein said, adding that policymakers will be able to choose what they need based on factors including resiliency, speed of deployment and mobility.

On the budget reconciliation

Some panelists noted that there is a high likelihood that the bill, in its current form, will be passed by the House, based on the concern that an amendment would force the bill back for another possible conflict in the Senate.

If the bill is passed as is, then, other potential broadband measures could be added in what’s known as “reconciliation,” a House Democratic package of initiatives worth $3.5 billion.

The panelists agreed that if there are additional measures to be put into reconciliation, it would be for a long-term extension of the popular Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provides broadband subsidies to low-income households, as well as some moves to ensure that a skilled workforce is in place to build these future networks.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021, 12 Noon ET — What’s Next for Broadband Infrastructure Legislation?

Though it may have passed in the Senate, the bipartisan infrastructure framework still faces hurdles before it can be put into law. How much money can broadband expansion expect to see? Will we see a return of reverse auctions? What kind of obstacles will the bill face?

Join us on September 1, 2021 where we will discuss all of this and more during our Broadband Breakfast Live Online event!

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Molly O’Leary, Director of Government Affairs, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association
  • Jonathan S. Adelstein, President and CEO, Wireless Industry Association
  • Matthew Polka, President and CEO, ACA Connects
  • Chip Pickering, CEO, INCOMPAS
  • Gary Bolton, President and CEO, Fiber Broadband Association
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

  • Molly O’Leary serves as Director of Government Affairs, NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association, and advocates in Congress and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to influence legislative and regulatory policy on behalf of NTCA members. Prior to joining NTCA, O’Leary worked in the U.S. Senate as a policy advisor to Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., on telecommunications, appropriations and native affairs. She previously served as a legislative aide to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) for his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Jonathan S. Adelstein has headed Wireless Industry Association since 2012, representing the businesses that build, develop, own, and operate the nation’s wireless infrastructure. He is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. He previously served 15 years on the U.S. Senate staff, culminating as a senior legislative advisor to Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
  • Matt Polka is the President and CEO of ACA Connects – America’s Communications Association (ACA), a 700-member Washington, D.C., trade and federal advocacy association of independent, smaller- and medium-sized broadband, cable and phone businesses.  ACAC members serve more than 10 million subscribers in smaller/rural markets and competitive areas in all 50 states.  Matt has been with the organization since 1993.
  • Chip Pickering is the CEO of INCOMPAS and has done so since 2014. He is also a former representative of Mississippi’s 3rd congressional district. He holds a BBA from the University of Mississippi and an MBA from Baylor University.
  • Gary Bolton serves as president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association — the largest trade association dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. Prior to FBA, Gary held executive management positions at two successful venture-backed high-tech start-ups as well as at large publicly traded companies in marketing, product line management and public policy. Gary is currently an adjunct professor in business administration and management science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and he holds an MBA from Duke University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

Funding

FCC Denies Funding for Two of the Biggest Winners of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Money

‘We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps,’ LTD said.

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Photo of Corey Hauer from the StarTribune provided by LTD

WASHINGTON, August 10, 2022 – LTD Broadband’s prolonged effort to get certification status in several states and Starlink’s still nascent and pricey satellite broadband project have proven enough for the Federal Communications Commission to deny them funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the agency announced Wednesday.

The reverse auction process for the $9.2-billion fund culminated in December 2020 to awards of $1.3 billion for LTD Broadband – the largest winner in the auction – and $885 million for SpaceX’s Starlink project. But since the winners were announced, a new-look commission emerged under the leadership of Jessica Rosenworcel to weed out projects that did not align with the goals of the program – including bids in areas with adequate coverage or areas that don’t need the services pitched.

In a decision on Wednesday, the commission said that the limited number of dollars available cannot go to support Starlink’s still developing technology. “Starlink’s technology has real promise,” Rosenworcel said in a press release.  “But the question before us was whether to publicly subsidize its still developing technology for consumer broadband—which requires that users purchase a $600 dish—with nearly $900 million in universal service funds until 2032.”

For LTD, the commission ruled that it “failed to timely receive eligible telecommunications carrier status in seven states,” adding the “relatively small fixed wireless provider…was not reasonably capable of deploying a network of the scope, scale, and size required by LTD’s extensive winning bids.

“We must put scarce universal service dollars to their best possible use as we move into a digital future that demands ever more powerful and faster networks,” Rosenworcel said. “We cannot afford to subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements.”

In a statement to Broadband Breakfast, LTD CEO Corey Hauer said, “We are extremely disappointed in the FCC staff decision.  I don’t believe the FCC fully appreciated the benefits LTD Broadband would bring to hundreds of thousands of rural Americans. We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps.”

In the same release on Wednesday, the FCC announced it has authorized $21 million in funding to three companies to deploy gigabit service to nearly 15,000 locations in Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. The commission has so far authorized more than $5 billion to bring fiber gigabit to over three million locations in 47 states, it said.

The FCC had provided winning bidders an opportunity last year to review the areas in which they won bids and to relinquish those areas they find are not in need of services. The aftermath included several defaults in areas, some of which were attributed to updated broadband maps from the commission. The commission said that it may waive penalties for the defaults, but last month proposed fines of $4.3 million against 73 RDOF applicants for violations related to those defaults.

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Funding

FCC Should Not Increase Rural Program Obligations in Light of New Federal Funding: Meeting Notes

Opponents say increasing coverage and speed obligations of the ACAM program may be unnecessary with new federal broadband money.

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Photo of FCC commissioners

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission should withhold expanding funding for a program of the Universal Service Fund because there may be support for broadband infrastructure from other federal funds and state activities, according to responses to the FCC proceeding on revising that program.

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau is seeking comment on enhancing the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program – which funds build-outs to rural and high-cost areas by allowing carriers to recover costs from the USF – by proposing additional funding support in exchange for increasing provider obligations to expand broadband deployment locations at higher internet speeds. It would also use the new Broadband DATA Act maps – which are set to be released by the fall – to determine new deployment obligations.

The new obligations would require speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload to 90 percent and at least 25/3 Mbps to the remaining 10 percent of eligible census blocks. In 2019, the commission increased the speed obligation to 25/3, which made at least 106,000 additional rural homes and small businesses eligible for A-CAM funding.

But the proposal is facing some opposition. According to a meeting summary with a legal advisor in Commissioner Brendan Carr’s office published Tuesday, telecom company Windstream reiterated that Congress has created an unprecedented $42.5-billion opportunity to deploy broadband networks in rural areas through the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and corresponding state broadband programs.

Windstream stressed in the meeting the importance of studying the IIJA’s impact prior to increasing current obligations to fund broadband projects, which it said would impact the stability of the USF.

The FCC is currently studying the future of the USF, whose revenues are derived largely from dwindling voice service revenues. Windstream expressed its support of the commission acting under what Windstream views as the FCC’s authority to expand the USF contribution base to include broadband internet access services, which has been an issue of debate for some time and is being studied by the commission.

NCTA, the internet and television association, in a summary of a meeting held with the legal advisor to Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, added that rather than spend USF resources where they may not be necessary – and may even disrupt state activities already in progress – the commission should pause any new high-cost support through the A-CAM program.

The association added that the FCC should be skeptical of requests to increase support for ongoing maintenance and operations through A-CAM as alternative federal funding may eliminate the need for operational support in many areas.

Comments on the decision to revise A-CAM will be accepted through August 18.

The proposal follows a request in June by Siyeh Communications, which asked for a change in A-CAM because the program allegedly incorrectly determined certain areas to be ineligible by misidentifying those areas being served by an unsubsidized, unaffiliated carrier.

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Funding

Agriculture Department Announces Fourth Round of ReConnect Funding

The announcement is the second round of ReConnect funding in fiscal year 2022.

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Photo of RUS Acting Administrator Christopher McLean by Drew Clark from June 2022

ASHINGTON, August 1, 2022 – The Rural Utilities Service of the United States Department of Agriculture announced the fourth round of funding for the ReConnect Program, with publication of the funding opportunity announcement scheduled for the federal register on August 4.

The announcement is the second round of ReConnect funding in fiscal year 2022.

The RUS has seen great interest in the third round of funding and is considering drawing on other federal infrastructure funds to satisfy demands, said the Acting Administrator Christopher McLean said in June. The latest round of funding received 305 applications requesting a total of $4.8 billion, but the program only allocated $1.15 billion.

USDA Considering Drawing on Infrastructure Bill Money as ReConnect Demand Increases

 

The ReConnect Program uses funds provided under the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act which sets aside $42.5 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to disburse among states for broadband infrastructure. It provides loans and grants to broadband deployment projects in rural areas.

The application will open 30 days after the announcement of funding opportunity is released. Applications will be submitted through the RUS online application portal on the ReConnect webpage. The application process will be open for 60 days.

Applicants should consider projects that will assist rural communities recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, ensure all rural residents have equitable access to rural development programs, and reduce climate pollution while increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Proposed service areas are eligible for funding if at least 50 percent of the households in the area lack sufficient access to broadband as defined in the funding opportunity announcement.

As part of the application process, applicants are expected to undergo an evaluation process and will be scored based on the rurality of the proposed service area, level of existing service, economic need of the community, affordability of service offerings, net neutrality principles, cybersecurity, and labor standards. Applications submitted by local governments, non-profits and tribal governments will be awarded higher scores.

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