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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.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Broadband Breakfast, Washington Jewish Week, and The Center Square, among other publications. He primarily covers Big Tech and spectrum policy.

FCC

FCC Announces New RDOF Accountability and Transparency Measures, Additional Funding

Results of verifications, audits and speed and latency testing for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be made public.

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Photo of reels of cabling in Hinsdale, Mont., in August 2016 by Tony Webster used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Friday said that it will implement new accountability and transparency measures, and make public the results of verifications, audits and speed and latency testing for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The measures are part of a new known as the Rural Broadband Accountability Fund that monitors several universal service high-cost programs.

Additionally announced in a press release, the Rural Broadband Accountability Fund will speed up the FCC’s audit and verification processes.

Audits and verifications are projected to double in 2022 as compared to 2021 and include on-site audits, and a particular focus will be placed on auditing and verifying the largest-dollar and highest-risk RDOF recipients.

The agency also announced that it would commit more than $1.2 billion more to RDOF, the largest funding round for the program to date.

The new funding will bring broadband service to more than 1 million locations through deployments in 32 states, with 23 broadband providers assisting the effort.

Going forward, the commission will deny waivers, it said, “for winning bidders that have not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals or prosecute their applications.”

All winning bidders will undergo “an exhaustive technical, financial, and legal review.”

Finally, the commission says a list of areas will be published which details where providers have defaulted, “making those places available for other broadband funding opportunities.”

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Broadband Data

Federal Communications Commission Approves New Provider Transparency Requirements

Broadband providers must now create “broadband nutrition labels” which list pricing and speed information.

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel from January 2015 by the Internet Education Foundation used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require that broadband providers create “broadband nutrition labels” that list information on the pricing and speed of internet service they provide.

The labels mimic food nutrition labels in format and aim to increase transparency of providers in their marketing to consumers.

With their approval at the commission’s monthly open meeting Thursday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the new rules are crucial to consumers being able to find the best deals on broadband service for their personal needs.

Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel praised the label format, saying that it allows consumers to “easily compare” information and that it is “black and white, simple to read, and easy to understand.”

The long-simmering idea was enacted by Congress in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by the president on November 15. It directed the FCC to revive the project by one year from the law’s passage.

On Thursday, Joshua Stager, New America’s deputy director for broadband and competition policy at its Open Technology Institute, called the vote “a welcome step forward and a win for consumers.” The think tank began promoting the idea last decade, and it had been endorsed by the Obama administration before being canned by the Trump administration.

Industry group Wireless Internet Service Providers Association said the transparency afforded by the new policy “provides consumers with important tools to make informed choices.”

Additionally in Thursday’s meeting, when the agency tentatively revoked telecom operator China Unicom Americas’ operating authority in the United States, the agency said they had reached out to the Department of Justice for assistance in responding to what they say are potential threats from the China-based company. This inter-agency review is routinely part of determinations involving foreign-owned telecommunications companies.

The agency also updated its definition of “library” to make clear that Tribal libraries are eligible to receive funds under the Universal Service Fund’s E-rate program.

Starks emphasized that the commission’s action represented progress on digital inclusion efforts, but that unfamiliarity of Tribal libraries with the E-rate program remains a problem.

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Fiber

Yellowstone Fiber Launches $65M Fiber Project with UTOPIA in Gallatin County, Montana

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Bozeman’s director of economic development.

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Screenshot of Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham in 2018

BOZEMAN, MONTANA, January 27, 2022 – Non-profit Yellowstone Fiber, in partnership with telecom Utopia Fiber, launched Thursday a $65-million high-speed fiber internet project in Gallatin County, Montana.

The open access model, which allows other telecoms to ride on the infrastructure to encourage competition, will mean “affordable access and service provider choice,” Brit Fontenot, Bozeman’s director of economic development and community relations, said during a Thursday press conference announcing the launch. Bozeman is a city in Gallatin County.

Yellowstone and Utopia, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, partnered back in September on the build, which is expected to bring speeds of 100 Gigabits per second download for businesses and 10 Gbps download for all 22,000 homes, businesses and government buildings in Bozeman, a Thursday press release said, adding the three-year construction project will begin this spring.

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Fontenot.

The choice of Bozeman and Gallatin County was a deliberate one, said Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham. Gallatin County has created “25 percent of all new jobs in Montana in the past decade,” in addition to being responsible for “30 percent of all population growth” of Montana, said Cunningham, adding there are “clean, data-driven companies…coming to Bozeman.”

The project is also expected to go beyond the initial $65 million. Utopia Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said at the press conference that some phases can start sooner as additional grants and funds are made available. The project proponents noted that the funds will come from private, not taxpayer, sources.

The announcement comes just days after the state hired location analytics company Lightbox to build a statewide broadband map. The state is listed on data platform BroadbandNow as the worst state for broadband coverage and access, despite Federal Communications Commission mapping data that report 99 percent of Gallatin County having broadband access, the Thursday press release noted.

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