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Experts Disagree Over How Broadband Rollout Should be Handled with New Federal Dollars

Gary Bolton and Nicol Turner Lee debated technology use to tackle the digital divide.

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Gary Bolton speaking on stage during Fiber Connect 2021 general session.

WASHINGTON, December 15, 2021 – Some experts remain divided over how to prioritize which communities on the wrong side of the digital divide, including who should be served first and with which technologies.

CEO and President of the Fiber Broadband Association Gary Bolton has long maintained that fiberoptic technology is the only method of deploying broadband to sufficiently address the question of need and access in American communities.

During FBA’s “Fiber for Breakfast” podcast on Wednesday, Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow of Brookings Institutions’ governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation, stated that every method of broadband deployment should be considered when attempting to bridge the digital divide. Bolton called the sentiment “nails on a chalkboard.”

“The old argument is that we should spread our funding like peanut butter and make sure that everybody has some kind of solution,” said Bolton. “We will never have the opportunity for investment that we have right in front of us – to be able to make sure that urban and rural areas do not get a second rat solution.”

He compared today’s efforts to connect the country to power grids in the 20th Century. “If you have power, you should be able to have fiber.”

Lee pushed back against the notion that fiber should be the first or only choice. “I think that we have the capacity in some rural areas to do the spread and depth of 5G wireless or any type of fixed wireless solution,” she said.  “I think that we have the opportunity in urban areas to use cable.”

When referring to underserved people who are trying to improve their existing broadband infrastructure, Lee said they were not her priority. “I do not really care about those people,” she said. “I care about those kids who did not have the chance to get online for school because they had no solution.”

“I think the marketplace is now demonstrating that, yes, we need fiber to propagate any [wireless] signal that we are talking about,” she continued, “We also need to make sure that we are solving the [people with the] least first.”

“If we go about serving those that have access or have the ability to have access [the internet], so that they can do more, we are not solving the digital divide,” Lee said.

Bolton was quick to respond, pointing out that much of the wireless infrastructure Lee was referring to would require fiber to support it anyway. “Fixed wireless requires fiber all the way to the line of sight. So, all these things require robust fiber,” he said. “If you’re pulling fiber, there should be no circumstances where we don’t pull fiber to every American.”

A similar debate emerged during Fierce Telecom’s Digital Divide Summit this week, with experts debating whether the billions coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should go toward fiber or a mix of that and other technologies.

Lee’s upcoming book “Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass” is slated to hit the shelves in 2022.

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.

Funding

NTIA Official Says Rural Broadband Funds Do Not Disqualify Area from New Broadband Monies

While NTIA will interpret grant funding under the law, it’s up to states to determine where to allocate money.

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Justin Perkins and Scott D. Woods on a Zoom video call

January 19, 2022 – The federal government agency charged with the task of doling out the $42.5 billion of broadband infrastructure funding hasn’t ruled out the idea of letting grant applicants use the money allocated to them from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to cover areas that will also be covered from grants given to projects from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The Commerce Department’s Scott D. Woods said the “policy team is working on [this]” and to “stay tuned” to further announcements. As a general rule, areas don’t “have federal assets for the similar purposes in the same area,” but there are “nuances to that.”

Woods is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s director of the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives at the agency’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth.

He made the remark during a recent “Ask Me Anything” interview with Broadband Breakfast Reporter Justin Perkins. Broadband Breakfast is a sister publication to Broadband.Money and is a privately-run media and conference company headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Grant applicants concerned about this specific issue should submit questions about it for the record in comments they should submit to the NTIA, Woods said. All comments are due February 4, 2022.

The Federal Register notice and instructions on how to file comments is here.

More information, including the NTIA’s  scoring criteria for grant applications, will be found in the Notice of Funding Opportunity coming out in May.

Doug Dawson, an influential broadband consultant of CCG Consulting (and blogger) wrote a blog post early January implying that RDOF covered areas wouldn’t be eligible for IIJA grant funding.

During the AMA, Woods took questions from the Broadband.Money community and discussed IIJA’s compatibility with RDOF, expectations for state plans, private-public partnerships, and the role of the community.

While the NTIA will be interpreting the terms of the grant funding as laid out in the IIJA, it’s up to the states to determine where to allocate the money.

The “state plans…ultimately have to reflect the needs of the unserved [and] underserved communities,” Woods said.

Perkins also emphasized how important it is “for the communities to give their input sooner rather than later, so that the NTIA can develop regulations that are really going to reflect the needs that these broadband programs are asking for.”

Despite the expedited timetable laid out in the IIJA, Woods said that states should be ready to submit rigorously-planned proposals to the NTIA when they ask for federal funding for their five-year broadband plans.

Some states don’t have any formal broadband offices in place, but most already have some basic organizational structures. Woods said that the NTIA is there to help states that might need more hand-holding through the grant application process.

Role of public-private partnerships

Woods also discussed the importance of private-public partnerships.

These partnerships will help with infrastructure, as well as “equity, inclusion, [and] adoption,” he said.

Public-private partnerships are built on “trust and transparency,” said Woods.

“There’s a lot of work to do, as well,” said Woods. “Trust is based on your words and your actions.”

One community member asked when the NTIA will announce its decisions on its $288 million for broadband infrastructure program, a separate broadband program funded under the 2021 appropriation bill. Woods said to check NTIA’s website, and that these announcements will be coming “soon.”

Woods also emphasized the importance of the role of the community to the forthcoming years-long broadband buildout. Everyone need to “provide information, to provide data, to provide feedback on what’s needed in the community.”

Instead of favoring one technology over another, such as fiber over wireless, the NTIA is going to “leave it to the states…to adopt what best works for them and their communities.”

“There’s a role for all technologies,” he said.

A version of this piece was originally published on Broadband.Money on January 19, 2022. You can find out more about Broadband.Money‘s past and future events and AMAs here. Don’t forget to come and participate in our discussion on Friday over who should receive IIJA money, in your opinion, and our Friday, January 28, 2022, Ask Me Anything! event With Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO @ SiFI Networks.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Ookla Fourth Quarter Report Puts T-Mobile as Fastest, Most Consistent Wireless Provider

T-Mobile ranks fastest mobile provider, improving on third quarter performance.

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T-Mobile president Mike Sievert

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2022 — Metrics company Ookla reported Tuesday that speed test data from the fourth quarter of last year show that T-Mobile was the fastest and most consistent mobile operator, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max is the top device in terms of popularity and download speeds, and Google is the top manufacturer when it comes to download and upload speeds.

The latest report, for the months of October, November and December, showed T-Mobile’s median download speed was 90.65 Megabits per second, while runner-up AT&T had a median download speed of 49.25 Mbps and Verizon came in at 44.67 Mbps. The District of Columbia had the fastest median mobile download speeds in the United States with 100.38 Mbps, with T-Mobile being the fastest mobile provider in 42 states.

T-Mobile also had a significant jump in terms of 5G performance, said the Tuesday report. In the third quarter, T-Mobile’s median 5G download speed was 135.27 Mbps, while Tuesday’s report shows their median 5G download speed was 187.12. Verizon came second with a median speed of 78.2 Mbps and AT&T was third with a median speed of 68.82 Mbps.

In the United States, the fastest popular device manufacturer was Google. Google’s median download speed was 60.82 Mbps, Samsung’s was 52.80, and Apple’s was 52.76.

However, the iPhone 13 Pro Max was the most popular and fastest device overall, with a median download speed of 90.58 Mbps and the iPhone 13 Pro following closely behind at 89.61 Mbps.

In the report, only Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were mentioned as internet providers, and Apple, Google, and Samsung were the only device manufacturers included.

Each month, Ookla collects data from Speedtest users to report the internet speed at their location, and the data from those tests are used to generate their quarterly reports.

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Funding

Digital Equity the Focus at NTIA’s Listening Session on Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act

Attendees questioned how digital equity progress can be measured and how underserved populations are educated on technology use.

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Moderator Adam Geisler, national tribal government liaison with the First Responder Network Authority

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2022 – Through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s efforts to hold listening sessions for the public to ask questions on grant programs provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, digital equity has emerged as a key concern.

In the second of five listening sessions, questioners emphasized digital equity issues for underserved communities such as Native tribes, proposing a digital equity scorecard to assess the effects of government programs in unconnected areas and suggesting implementation of further adult education programs to improve technological knowledge.

This specific session Wednesday sought input on:

  • Ways Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program funds could be used to connect communities.
  • New ways IIJA programs could promote broadband affordability including how middle mile should be targeted to promote affordable last mile.
  • How the NTIA could ensure contact between states with tribal entities to promote broadband access and digital equity.

Another key focus among questioners was on logistics of broadband infrastructure builds.

Concerned broadband officials say there is a shortage of technicians to work on building infrastructure projects, and that funds should be used to support programs in technical schools that would train construction workers and bolster workforce numbers.

Additionally, there is concern over many project applications being considered overbuilding – building networks in areas with existing broadband infrastructure – and getting denied despite many broadband policy experts not actually considering them overbuilding.

Questioners at the session continued to push for more granular mapping that compiles data below the census block level as well as for more affordable middle mile.

Further, they emphasized that the NTIA must take steps to address challenges that smaller broadband networks and co-ops, which they say often provide better broadband service than larger networks, face in applying for funding due to being less skilled at completing applications than larger networks.

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