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Broadband Panelists Say Public-Private Partnerships Provide Unique Solutions for Regional Needs

Some experts believe that public-private models may provide answers for municipalities struggling to narrow the digital divide.

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From left to right: Photo of Chris Walker, John Burchett, and Marry Ellen Player at Broadband Communities Summit in Houston

HOUSTON, October 1, 2021 – Public-private partnerships are an effective model to build out and improve broadband infrastructure, experts said on Wednesday at the Broadband Communities Summit here, and can be rewarding for all stakeholders involved.

Expedient, affordable partnerships that seek to serve the underserved are a winning combination, said Mary Ellen Player, vice president of market management for Consolidated Communications. She is the former colleague of her fellow panelist at Google Fiber, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations John Burchett.

In Burchett’s view, public-private relationships offer opportunities for two entities—a municipal community and a private company—to leverage the strengths of the other. While the cost of capital is often less of an obstacle for a private entity, they may not understand the precise needs of the area they are serving.

Additionally, private parties may not understand or have access to the rights of way in which to install their broadband equipment. Conversely, while the cost of capital may be a significant barrier to entry for a municipal entity, such entities will likely have a better idea of and a deeper appreciation for the community’s unique needs.

That item represents a distinct advantage for private-public partnerships, “Public entities get to dictate some of the terms of how their needs are met,” Burchett said.

“If you are a community that is part urban, part rural—or maybe you have some areas that are just really hard to get to—private efforts will take forever to get there because it may not make economic sense.” Burchett explained that this is where a public-private partnership can step in to bring another provider into the region to build out to those underserved areas and present a viable, competitive, alternative to the incumbent provider.

Trade offs to public-private partnerships

While generally supportive of public-private partnerships, SiFi Networks CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson pointed out that there are trade-offs to the model. For example, those working as part of a public-private partnership effort may be entitled to a prevailing wage that they may not otherwise have if they were working as part of a strictly private effort.

As a result, the overhead costs of a project may increase. “It’s a balancing act,” Bawtree-Jobson said, “But there are huge advantages if you can make these projects work.”

Bawtree-Jobson identified timelines, the cost of capital, and the confidence in that capital as the most pressing issues entities should consider when determining whether a private-public relationship is right for them.

Despite many of the benefits of public-private models offer, some states have pursued initiatives to ensure they are not successful, in some cases going so far as having the model outlawed, “Incumbents have been able to put poison pills in bill after bill,” Burchett said. He said that these “poison pills” have been successful in predominantly red states, thanks in part to initiatives led by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Burchett said that despite this, many of these efforts have been whittled down over the years, “[Attitudes] went from ‘I am philosophically opposed to government competing with the private sector,’ to ‘we just need [broadband to be] better.’”

In conclusion, all three panelists agreed that regardless of their model, broadband entities need to take advantage of this era of unprecedented funding, “Funding is not an issue today,” Player said, “The appetite [for broadband] is there.”

“I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be in this industry,” Burchett added.

This funding, however, hung in the balance as Democrats and Republicans only narrowly averted a government shutdown on Thursday, September 30, the final day of the government’s fiscal year. On Thursday night Congress passed, and President Biden signed,  a measure extending the budget deadline until early December.

As a child of American parents working abroad, Reporter Ben Kahn was raised as a third culture kid, growing up in five different countries, including the U.S.. He is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore, where he majored in Policy, Politics, and International Affairs. He enjoys learning about foreign languages and cultures and can now speak poorly in more than one language.

5G

Celebrating Progress on 5G, the FCC’s Brendan Carr Urges Broadband Mapping

5G crusader Commissioner Brendan Carr voiced pride in the FCC’s focus on 5G over the past four years

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Photo of Brendan Carr from the Tennessee Star

WASHINGTON, October 15, 2021–Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr on Friday celebrated U.S. progress in 5G wireless investment and urged the completion of the agency’s broadband mapping initiative.

Speaking a the Free State Foundation gala luncheon, Carr argued that the United States has progressed in its 5G investments and is catching up to foreign networks. ”Years ago we imaged the U.S. would be left behind in 5G,” he said.

He touted his and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s efforts to “remove the red tape.” Enabling the private sector has paid off, he said: The U.S. has jumped 20 places on the country internet speed index, signaling the installation of more robust U.S. 5G networks.

Further, the FCC should complete its broadband mapping process and take caution with the federal money allocated toward broadband deployment, he said, adding that he asked the FCC earlier this year to complete its map by fall 2021.

“There’s planning that can take place when the maps are completed” he said, reflecting a desire from the public and private sector for better, more accurate broadband maps.

He also said that federal money allocated toward the FCC’s efforts to bridge the digital divide should be used carefully, and that money to connect unconnected Americas should not be wasted.

Carr celebrated American investment in 5G progress earlier this year, calling U.S. leadership in 5G “one of the greatest success stories in of the past four years.” In that time, the FCC opened up more than six gigahertz of spectrum for 5G services.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also gave remarks at the event, expressing concern about the federal Made In America policy’s implications on the telecommunications sector.

The Made in America policy refers to President Biden’s push to increase American made content in supply chains. O’Rielly, who left the Commission in December 2020, argued that the policy limits telecommunications companies to the kinds of products that can be made available to consumers.

The Free State Foundation’s Randy May at the Friday event

He also questioned “what it means to be an American manufacturer” because foreign companies are “in essence, being punished by law” for having “investments in the U.S. with U.S. workers as part of a U.S. subsidiary.”

In O’Rielly’s view, the location of the companies headquarters does not impact its national security risk to the U.S.

The remarks by Carr and O’Rielly were at the 15th anniversary celebration for the free-market think tank. Carr said that the foundation has been an “invaluable resource” and has been cited more than 200 times in FCC decisions.

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Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Goes to Court in Utah Over American Fork’s Build Permit Refusals

Fiber builder says it has been denied permits that have harmed it and its customers, despite an existing city agreement.

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Photo of Twin Peaks in American Fork, Utah, by Bryant Olsen used with permission

October 13, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of American Fork in Utah for breach of contract after the city allegedly denied build permits to the fiber builder despite there being an existing contract between the two parties.

The fiber provider, which runs an open network on which private telecoms rent space on to provide services, alleges the city had approved some permits that only allowed it to construct backbone transport lines through the city connecting other cities, but denied it key permits that would have allowed it to extend services to UTOPIA Fiber customers inside the city. Those services include connections to American Fork’s public schools.

In July 2020, the city allegedly terminated the 2018 rights-of-way agreement with no explanation, the lawsuit claims. It also alleges that the city specifically discriminated against UTOPIA Fiber by adding additional scrutiny to its permit requests when it believed no such scrutiny existed for other providers.

Broadband Breakfast attempted to make contact with the city, but a phone call was not answered and a voicemail message was not returned by the time of publication.

“American Fork’s refusal to approve permit requests by or for UTOPIA for service laterals for customers within American Fork has harmed UTOPIA, its customers, and the private ISPs who wish to offer services within American Fork using UTOPIA’s Network,” the lawsuit said. “In some cases, UTOPIA has been forced to buy capacity from other network providers that are allowed to install infrastructure in American Fork, so that UTOPIA can fulfill existing contracts with its customers.

“In other cases, UTOPIA has been forced to cancel existing customer orders for connections within American Fork and has lost significant revenues as a result,” the suit added. “UTOPIA has also recently been forced to cancel or reject over a dozen additional customer orders because UTOPIA is unable, due to American Fork’s conduct, to obtain the permits needed to fulfill those orders, and again lost significant revenues as a result.”

In a press release, UTOPIA’s executive director Roger Timmerman said the lawsuit was a “last resort and not an easy decision to make.

“It is our hope that with judicial review, American Fork City will reverse its policies, work within the boundaries of the law, and ultimately, act in the best interest of the people and businesses in American Fork City by allowing them access to the increased options UTOPIA Fiber provides,” Timmerman added.

UTOPIA Fiber is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah to force the city to pay the company damages sustained as a result of the alleged actions, to find the city violated the law with respect to its actions, and to force the city to cease the alleged “discriminatory and preferential actions” against the company.

UTOPIA Fiber, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, has designed, built, and operated more than $330 million worth of fiber projects in the state since 2009.

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5G

FCC’s Rosenworcel On Need to Accelerate Movement Toward 5G and Beyond

The acting chairwoman said the country needs to move quickly to adopt 5G for future technologies.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

WASHINGTON, October 12, 2021 – At the 10th annual Americas Spectrum Management Conference on Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the nation must move rapidly toward 5G to lay the groundwork for future technologies, including 6G.

Rosenworcel stressed the need to use this moment to “build a foundation for new growth and new opportunity in the post-pandemic world by increasing “the momentum toward 5G” and setting the stage for 6G “and beyond.”

She offered five principles for the delivery of 5G across the U.S. She illustrated how the FCC is dedicating more spectrum for 5G in order to demonstrate the viability of mid-band spectrum in the 3.45-3.55GHz bands for private carriers. The FCC is also working on expanding the reach of fiber facilities. Referencing Biden’s infrastructure plan that includes $65 billion for broadband deployment, Rosenworcel noted that “it’s terrific to see that building more broadband is at the heart of the legislative discussions we are having about infrastructure in this country.”

The agency has been putting those words into practice, moving to release spectrum as it began an auction last week for critical mid-band spectrum in the 3.45 Gigahertz band said to be important for 5G. The commissioners from the agency have also talked up the need to focus on the squeezing “every drop” of the mid-band, following the massive C-band auction.

Rosenworcel described 5G as “an essential part of unlocking technologies that we’ve been talking about . . . the internet of things, telemedicine, virtual and augmented reality, smart transportation networks, [and] smart energy grids.” She views these technologies as the future of industry and expands the potential for artificial intelligence.

This was the first time Rosenworcel addressed the conference in her capacity as acting chairwoman, as she reviewed the agency’s progress toward closing the digital divide for all Americans. That includes administering a number of big broadband programs to tackle affordability and accessibility, including the Emergency Broadband Benefit program and Emergency Connectivity Fund, from which the FCC on Tuesday said it committed $1.1 billion in a second wave of funding.

Late last month, the FCC approved 72 telehealth applications to ensure patients have continuous care during the pandemic. Rosenworcel said healthcare centers across the U.S. “are receiving $140 million in support to assist with efforts to expand telehealth,” a service that could connect Americans unable to travel for in-person medical care.

Rosenworcel also described the beginning of the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to help prevent equipment harmful to the nation’s security “from ever reaching our shores and to encourage better security practices across the board.”

Finally, Rosenworcel described efforts to develop international standards for technology to cultivate more international innovation and democratize access to modern communications. The acting chairwoman and colleagues have previously noted the importance of open access technologies, like open radio access networks, for security, innovation and low cost.

Looking to 6G and beyond, Rosenworcel illustrated the need to refocus America’s cyber defense resources on developing strategies for greater protection in cyberspace. She urged conferencegoers to “take the lessons of the past few years to put us on smart course for the next generation of wireless technology.”

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