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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.

Broadband Mapping & Data

States are Making Their Own Broadband Maps to Challenge the FCC’s Data

With FCC maps promised soon, some states are preparing to possibly challenge them by making their own.

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Photo of United States flags on the Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore from the National Park Service

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2022 – Some states are preparing their own broadband availability maps in preparation to challenge any deficiencies in the Federal Communications Commission’s own maps, according to state officials Broadband Breakfast spoke to, which could mean the difference between more or less funding.

The FCC’s new map, which is expected by this fall and will help federal programs deliver billions in funding to underserved and unserved areas, will include a challenge process where broadband providers, and communities will be able to challenge broadband availability claims by submitting evidence to the FCC’s Broadband Data Collection system.

Many states are preparing for this challenge process now by establishing their own state broadband maps, according to people this publication spoke to. William Price of location data and service company LightBox said that “states that have invested in developing their own fabric and their own ISP data collection for those locations will be in a position to pose a credible challenge [to the FCC’s maps].”

FCC Opens Broadband Data Collection Program

If states have not developed their own location level mapping, they will have no basis to evaluate if federal funding allocations are appropriate and no way to advocate for additional funds, said Price, whose LightBox has agreements with some states to develop their own maps. (LightBox is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.)

B.J. Tanksley of Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development said in an interview that the state is “hopeful that its maps will be useful in challenging the FCC’s maps… we believe our maps will allow us to challenge, when necessary, to improve the accuracy for Missouri.”

Tanksley added that there are sure to be many states looking to strengthen their maps prior to the FCC process, which will lead to a demand in this area.

Indeed, Utah is following the trend. Rebecca Dilg of the Utah Broadband Center told Broadband Breakfast that state maps are necessary to compare to FCC maps. Dilg expects that Utah’s state map will prove useful to challenge location-level coverage claims in the cases of multi-dwelling buildings where federal maps would claim a location is served without considering multi-tenant living situations.

Utah’s Broadband Maps Are Ready for Federal Funding, Broadband Director Says

Preparing for the challenge process is an “important investment of time,” Dilg said.

Florida, which has developed a broadband internet speed test to populate its map, said in a statement to Broadband Breakfast that any location level map that Florida may create should supplement the yet-to-be released FCC maps.

The road to better maps

Previous broadband availability maps provided by the FCC faced longstanding criticism from industry stakeholders, members of Congress, and the FCC itself because of its overreliance on the Form 477 method, which relied largely on data from internet service providers.

Those maps relied on data on speed tests, surveys, and data at the census block level, which meant an entire block was considered covered if just one address within that block received adequate connectivity.

In order to improve the mapping situation and ensure that the $42.5 billion in new funds from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act funds are allocated to areas in need, Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act in 2020.

Drew Clark: Broadband Maps Are a Mess, So Now Let’s Focus on Actually Improving Them

A few states have undertaken the location-level methodology that precisely maps the availability of broadband services to every address in the state, said Price. Some of these states have contracted with LightBox.

Other states are choosing to collect broadband availability data through speed tests and surveys to approximate where broadband services are and are not. These types of maps are not as accurate as address location-level maps, said Price.

Price said it looks like over 30 states may be forgoing creating their own maps and are choosing to accept the results of the FCC maps.

Possible problems facing state-level maps

Obtaining ISP support and cooperation has proven to be difficult for state officials, according to some. Clay Purvis of Vermont’s Community Broadband Board indicated to Broadband Breakfast that carriers do not always provide complete reports of service areas. Dilg of Utah agreed, adding that it is a challenge getting ISPs to participate in updating maps, which Utah does on a semi-annual basis.

Furthermore, Vermont is concerned that the FCC will not accept data from its drive-test data during the challenge process.

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Funding

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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