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Counties, Private Providers Clash Over Merits of Open Access Networks

Counties see it as a way to increase competition and lower prices, while telecoms see money and quality problems.

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From left to right: John Burchett, Carter Old, and Ramiro Gonzales at Digital Infrastructure Investment

HOUSTON, September 28, 2021 – Tensions emerged Monday when the topic of open access networks pitted municipalities in favor and private companies against the idea of sharing infrastructure with other telecoms.

The Digital Infrastructure Investment conference hosted by Broadband Breakfast heard how counties favor open access networks to drive connectivity, competition among providers, and make internet access more affordable.

“We’re certainly in favor of open access,” said Julie Wheeler, president commissioner of York County, Pennsylvania, noting that affordability and access were York County’s chief priorities. She said York took advantage of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding they received last year to build a 16-mile dark fiber backbone. The county is now focused on building out their middle mile infrastructure.

Ramiro Gonzalez, director of government and community affairs for the City of Brownsville, is working to bring Brownsville away from being the least connected city in America. His team’s action plan was created during the pandemic working through many models and opportunities. They have allocated 19.5 million dollars into building the middle mile network for Brownsville.

“The middle mile will provide resiliency to all our buildings” and utilities, said Gonzalez. He says the city saw the most value in building middle mile infrastructure and then opening the infrastructure to investors to grow the network from there.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 was hosted as an online and in person conference by Broadband Breakfast at the Broadband Communities Summit. The recording of the Monday event is available for registration and replay.

Open access networks have been a topic of great interest, as cities and states try to figure out how to expand broadband infrastructure. The broadband portion of the infrastructure bill that is expected to be voted on in the House on Thursday will give money to the states and cities to divide. Telecoms have been concerned that builds by municipalities, who then allow other telecoms to ride on it, would effectively replace the incumbents. Republicans in some states have even sought to limit community networks.

But some have suggested that the issue must be framed as more cooperation with providers rather than an existential crisis for them, while others have even said municipal broadband networks with open access provisions could help alleviate competition fears.

Private companies signal issues with open access

Carter Old, co-founder and president for Tachus LLC, approaches networks with one hundred percent buried fiber due to events like hurricanes and floods that have been a tragic part of the recent history of Houston, where Tachus primarily operates.

Tachus’ strategy is to bring a “blazing fast pipe of internet” and from there “allow the customer” to decide what internet experience to bring to their home. “In order to deliver hands down the best customer experience,” said Old, “we feel that owning and maintaining our network is the best way to do that.”

For Ting Internet’s Monica Webb, having too many providers on the same pipeline could potentially create a financial problem whereby a price war would leave some providers without much profit.

John Burchett, head of public policy for Google Access and Google Fiber, noted that building broadband infrastructure is slow, and that Google Fiber is “picking up steam” to penetrate suburbs and small towns.

“With every passing day there’s a new model out there,” he said, stating that there are many paths to building broadband infrastructure. Though he said that Google would be interested in providing an open access network on which it would compete against other providers, he clarified that, “I don’t think you’re going to find any provider who will build a fully open access model,” though he made clear that Google has offered service on shared or leased networks before.

One problem Burchett raised is the lack of choice that the majority of America is facing, alluding to a middle ground between local monopoly and an over-saturated market.

Reporter Riley Steward is a writer from Denton, Texas, who graduated from The University of Texas' Business Honors Program. He has written for various publications including The Recording Academy Grammy.com. He currently lives and writes in New York City.

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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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