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Open Access Model Can Leverage Historic Funding to Drive Broadband Expansion

Even though the models are not yet mainstream, some experts praise them for their unique advantages.

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From left to right: Photo of Christopher Mitchell, Heather Gold, Jeff Boozer, Kim McKinley

HOUSTON, September 30, 2021 — The open access model is picking up steam, and historic investments coming down the pike could make this an opportunity for the model to flourish, according to experts at the Broadband Communities Summit on Wednesday.

“I am trying to figure out if there is increased interest in open access or if it is more viable now [due to modern technology],” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocate for community broadband. Open access networks allow multiple internet service provider to rise on the same infrastructure, thus in theory increasing competition and driving down prices.

Mitchell said that while UTOPIA, a prominent fiber builder that uses an open access model, was once considered to be an error that advocates had to explain away, they have turned themselves around, and are now considered to be one of the leading examples of open access done right for the entire country.

UTOPIA chief marketing officer Kimberley McKinley has been with the company for more than ten years. During that time, UTOPIA has transformed from a blight on the record of the open access model, to a “leading light,” in the words of Mitchell. When explaining open access, McKinley likens it to an airport—a facility built by a municipal body but primarily utilized by private entities.

The model comes with several inherent benefits over conventional approaches, the conference heard. “When a community owns [the infrastructure] they’re going to build it to the specs they need,” McKinley explained. “Private [carriers] will employ cost-cutting methods wherever they can.”

Mitchell was quick to point out that speed is not the only important aspect of the open access model, though it is often one of the most prominent features. Jeff Boozer of ETI Software Solutions said that open access’s most important feature is that it allows service providers to specialize their service. Rather than investing their capital in the infrastructure to serve a community, they can invest in other solutions to better serve their communities.

The community connection

McKinley also noted that open access keeps money local and allows communities to support regional ISPs and businesses rather than national, corporate behemoths.

For the model to continue to find success, Mitchell stated that efforts need to start with solid anchor ISPs and other organizations municipalities can trust, because if the ISP provides poor service, the whole model will suffer.

Though the panel unanimously agreed that there should never be a one-size-fits-all approach, they were all very supportive of expanding open access efforts, “In time, if we can demonstrate the benefits of open access, [more regions] will adopt it,” Mitchell said, “Once we hit 500,000-1,000,000 homes—then we’ll start to see serious innovation.”

With the infrastructure bill expected to see a vote Thursday, with billions in funding going to the states, experts at this year’s Digital Infrastructure Investment conference said the money could be the policy leverage needed to push the open access concept.

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.

Funding

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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Funding

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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