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Pandemic and Funding Programs Increasing Investments in Broadband and M&A, Conference Hears

Broadband money programs and a need for connectivity is driving capital into the space.

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The experts hosted by Broadband Breakfast at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference on September 27.

HOUSTON, September 27, 2021 – The pandemic and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure agenda are accelerating investments and mergers and acquisitions in broadband related ventures, according to panelists at the Digital Infrastructure Investment conference on Monday.

Experts hosted by Broadband Breakfast said trends that are emerging from the pandemic, the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill that is now before the House and the Federal Communications Commission’s $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, are bigger and accelerated investments not just in broadband, but in non-traditional markets.

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.

“I think [the pandemic] it opened up new markets,” said Lindsay Miller, a partner at law firm Ice Miller. “Whereas for a long time investment was being made in the metropolitan areas, in the big cities, where the return on investment was pretty much certain and likely to be quick, now we’re seeing more investment in small-to-mid-sized cities and rural markets, especially because, in the pandemic, more folks may have relocated to those areas or stayed in those areas.

“So I think we’re seeing a lot of changes in terms of where these investments are taking place,” she added.

For mergers and acquisitions, James Wagar, a partner at Frontbridge Capital, noted companies are buying service providers at very high valuations and using government grants to upgrade the networks.

That strategy may benefit areas that need connectivity fast, as Ryan Carr, a partner at MC Partners, said when he described how some are using the FCC’s RDOF money. He used the example of winners of RDOF money who see that some local service providers can’t provide high enough internet speeds and so they buy the provider and just upgrade the networks.

“They view that as an easier way to get to market faster, rather than them going out and building that network all over again,” Carr said, adding it’s akin to a land grab as it’s not about a thirst for connectivity and how fast you can build out. “So you may be able to go out and buy a local WISP or local ILEC, or whatever it may be…and upgrade their infrastructure as a way to get to market faster.”

Carr added that he expects “continued M&A and a lot more institutional investor interest in this space and continued progress and accelerated investment.”

Local focus a big plus in infrastructure bill

Carr also noted that the infrastructure bill’s focus on state or city level funding, instead of being divvied out from the federal government will give more opportunities for smaller providers perhaps more attuned to their communities.

It gives a “lot of opportunity for smaller providers to access those funds, rather than it just going to a Charter or A&T. A lot of this is going to come down to, how good is your relationship with your local community and your local municipality,” Carr said.

Miller agrees, stating that this is a unique moment for partnerships and new approaches that can be taken for broadband expansion.

Wagar said in the pacific northwest, the state broadband offices are becoming more active and they “want to give the money away,” if you come with a viable plan.

The session was moderated by Drew Clark, Drew ClarkEditor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast and Of Counsel to The CommLaw Group.

Funding

Private Investors Can Jumpstart Community Networks, Say Broadband Breakfast Panelists

‘We believe that connectivity can be a new and distinct category in impact investing.’

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Photo of Ben Matranga, managing partner at Connectivity Capital.

WASHINGTON, September 29, 2022 – A new report from digital investment house Connectivity Capital is urging private investment firms to diversify their portfolios and plow more money into locally-owned and operated broadband networks worldwide.

Examining case studies from 10 communities worldwide, the September report suggests these firms, which often invest in healthcare and environment projects, put those social and environmental progress “impact investment funds” toward community connectivity providers. Connectivity Capital is such an investor and has funded projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

At a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday, Connectivity Capital Managing Partner Ben Matranga identified two common features of successful community providers: Innovation and cost-cutting. “Every single operator that we catalogued and certainty every operator that we invest in is doing something vastly different,” he said. “As you talk to these operators, they all have a culture of frugality,” he said.

Steve Song, telecommunications consultant and policy advisor at Mozilla, argued that community networks are “more than just about connectivity.” He said that, “In almost every case you see other kinds of social connections being built as a result of these initiatives.”

Similar stories from around the world

“Around the world we see a remarkably similar story, Community Connectivity Providers often delay or forgo expansion plans because of the lack of appropriate capital,” Matranga said in a prior interview with Broadband Breakfast. “What that means is that the over 3 billion unconnected people globally are locked out and left behind from the transformational power of the internet.”

Matranga added that he hopes the report will “demystify” the phenomenon of community-driven broadband networks and illustrate the best practices of successful CCPs – i.e., cooperatives, municipal networks, small operators, etc. He said hopes to encourage more impact investors to fund broadband projects.

“We believe that connectivity can be a new and distinct category in impact investing,” Matranga said.

The report comes at a time when multiple U.S. states have put into place roadblocks to municipal broadband builds, though some have rolled-back some of those restrictions. The issue with those types of projects, they say, is that they will prevent private competition.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce agency tasked with distributing $42.5 billion to the states for broadband builds, has said that municipal builds must be considered when utilizing the federal money.

The reports recommends that policymakers accommodate the needs of various types of CCPs and design a simple, clear regulatory environment in which all can operate. The report also suggests state loans, subsidies, and technical-assistance initiatives.

As federal money hangs over the states, more digital investment firms are putting money toward broadband builds. For example, a Dutch pension fund manager, APG Group NV, last year bought a 16.7 percent stake in SiFi Networks, a network builder that specializes in open-access fiber-to-the-home. SiFi has built its trademark “FiberCity” projects nationwide and on Thursday announced the beginning of constructing on a citywide network in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Editor’s note: This story and headline, published on the morning of Wednesday, September 28, as “Private Investors Can Jumpstart Community Networks, Says New Report,” have been updated to reflect comments made by speakers during the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband

In the world of digital infrastructure financing, it often seems like there’s a “Private Sector is from Mars” and “Non-profits are from Venus” attitude. The conversations have been segmented and distinct. But a new approach suggests change is underway. A report by Connectivity Capital, in association with the Association for Progressive Communication, Internet Society, and Connect Humanity, provides a new paradigm: Community Connectivity Providers. What are they and why are they important? What are the various operational models and examples? What financial mechanisms have been used and how are investors allocating capital to expand broadband access? Join us for a Broadband Breakfast Live Online discussion exploring this new convergence of financing and broadband.

Panelists:

  • Ben Matranga, Managing Partner, Connectivity Capital
  • Steve Song, Telecommunications Consultant & Policy Advisor, Mozilla
  • Jim Forster, General Partner, Connectivity Capital
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Ben Matranga is the Managing Partner at Connectivity Capital, the world’s first impact investment firm focused exclusively on expanding broadband access in emerging markets. Connectivity Capital manages over a dozen investments in digital infrastructure including ISPs operating in 16 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Ben has over fifteen years of experience leading private equity and venture capital investments in emerging markets. Ben previously was an Investment Officer with the Soros Economic Development Fund, a $350 million impact investment fund founded by George Soros, where he led a broad range of transactions co-investing with sovereign governments, Development Finance Institutions, and institutional investment funds.

Steve Song is a Policy Advisor with the Mozilla Corporation; a consultant on access regulation and policy to the Association for Progressive Communications; and a research partner with the Network Startup Resource Center. His blog, manypossibilities dot net, is a popular destination for anyone working on African telecommunications and internet issues. Since 2009, Steve has been actively maintaining public maps of undersea and terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure in Africa. He is also the founder of Village Telco, a social enterprise that manufactured low-cost WiFi mesh VoIP technologies to deliver affordable voice and Internet service in under-serviced areas. Previously, Steve worked at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) where he led the organization’s ICTs for Development program in Africa, funding research into the transformational potential of ICTs.

In addition to serving as General Partner at Connectivity Capital, Jim Forster serves as the Managing Director of International Network Investments. He has over 35 years of hands-on leadership and technical expertise in networking equipment and Internet infrastructure. He spent over 20 years at Cisco Systems, starting in 1988 as the very first software development Manager, and became Distinguished Engineer leading various initiatives across IOS Software Development, System Architecture, and Business Development. He is a contributing author to Wireless Networking in the Developing World, the pioneering guide to building low-cost wireless network infrastructure in the developing world.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC, the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of the State Broadband Initiative in Illinois. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way.

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.

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North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber

North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.

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Screenshot of Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division

September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.

Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.

According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.

Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.

GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.

Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.

Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.

In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.

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Funding

NTIA Middle Mile Director Stresses Need for Infrastructure to Withstand Climate Events

The director of the middle mile program said applicants must show “climate resilience” to get funding.

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Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

WASHINGTON, September 8, 2022 – The director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s middle mile program on Wednesday stressed the importance of ensuring projects can withstand natural events, such as storms, to get funding from its $1 billion program.

Sarah Bleau said Wednesday on a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event that – despite the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act not mentioning climate resilience, the notice of funding opportunity for funds requires that a plan be in place for infrastructure resiliency against climate- and weather-related events.

Applications for funding are due September 30.

NTIA wants letter of credit, proof of area in need

Bleau also emphasized the need for applicants to show proof of an area to be served and to get a letter of credit, which will be requested by the agency from the bank. A letter of credit is a letter that’s addressed by a banker to a correspondent stating that the person named can draw upon the writer’s credit up to a chosen amount.

Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

The letter of credit is intended to help the NTIA evaluate what level of risk the applicant is at. Bleau has had to address controversies surrounding the letter of credit during a virtual session on the program, saying it is “not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment.”

Bleau also fielded questions about extensions to apply to the program, saying there currently will be no extensions.

Among the other most-asked questions about the program, she said, include the use of matching funds to facilitate infrastructure grants. In almost all cases, applicants are required to provide a 30 percent match for grant proposals.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process, an Event Headlined by NTIA’s Sarah Bleau

Most of the attention from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been focused on last-mile broadband deployment. But the deadline for IIJA’s Middle Mile grant program is coming up on September 30, 2022. In this special Broadband Breakfast Live Online session, we’ll begin with a brief headline presentation by Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, speaking about the $1 billion program, how the agency is handling the program, and how Middle Mile grants will impact the $42.5 billion last-mile broadband program.

Panelists:

  • Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  • Doug Maglothin, Executive Director, Diamond States Network
  • Mark Goldstein, President of the International Research Center
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Sarah Bleau (center) joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in February 2021 as the Middle Mile Program Director. She took on this leadership role for the Broadband Infrastructure Program in Fall 2021 and saw the program through to the award recommendations and announcements made in February 2022. Sarah has extensive industry experience from spending the better part of her career buying, building, and selling fiber networks Sarah holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Doug Maglothin (left) is presently serving as the lead on the Diamond State Networks middle mile project which is the largest and fastest networks of its kind in all of Arkansas. Founded by electric cooperatives, DSN’s goal is to make Arkansas the most significantly connected state in the country by promoting fast and affordable broadband to every corner of the state. Working alongside the coops, Doug helped to develop Diamond State Networks from its inception in 2020 as a consultant by way of his firm, Leverage Broadband Strategies where he serves as a Partner and Chief Strategy Officer.

Mark Goldstein (right) is chairman of the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council and president of the International Research Center.

Drew Clark (moderator, not pictured) is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative in Illinois. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Photo from the National Association of Counties

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.

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