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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.

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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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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