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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 Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.

Infrastructure

Utilities Coalition Warns Against Shifting Cost of Replacing Poles

‘Utilities have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it.’

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Photo of linemen on a pole from 2015 by Lisa Meiman

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2023 – A coalition consisting of 37 electric utility companies serving 31 million households is warning the Federal Communications Commission that shifting the cost burden of replacing wood poles to house communications equipment onto utilities will make them less likely to take voluntary action to help telecoms expand.

The Coalition of Concern Utilities said in a letter Thursday that the FCC’s current study into whether it should order utilities to share in the cost of replacing poles should factor what those utilities have been doing on a voluntary basis – “prematurely” replacing their poles for telecoms despite it diverting resources from “system reliability, grid modernization and clean energy initiatives.

“Despite these disincentives to prematurely replacing poles for communications companies, utilities for four decades have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it,” the letter said.

Traditionally, pole owners can invoice to a telecommunications company the cost of replacing the entire pole if it feels the equipment to be attached would warrant it.

The coalition added that submissions to the commission to “modify this longstanding, carefully balanced and successful cost reimbursement mechanism would cause many utilities to reconsider, for the first time in four decades, whether dropping everything to perform voluntary and premature pole replacements is worth the time, effort and expense.”

Shifting even some part of the cost to the utilities would likely be absorbed by them, the coalition argues, because the utilities will be “hard-pressed” to justify to state utility commissions “how pole replacements solely necessitate by communications attacher requests is a benefit to electric rate payers.”

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Broadband Mapping & Data

NTIA Working on State Guidance for Further Map Challenges After BEAD Allocation: Official

An agency official said states have asked for guidance on how to handle local challenges.

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Photo of NTIA Senior Policy Advisor Sarah Morris at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2023 — A senior advisor to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said Thursday that the Commerce Department agency is working on crafting guidance for states about how to approach local map challenges after it allocates the $42.5 billion from its flagship broadband program. 

The NTIA is preparing to allocate money to the states from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, following the closing of the deadline Friday to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s maps on which that funding is dependent. The agency, which has already decided on a base of $100 million for each state, has said it expects to allocate all remaining funds by June 30. 

Sarah Morris, a senior advisor to NTIA head Alan Davidson who was expected to appear at the Conference of Mayors Thursday but could not – said the agency has fielded questions from state officials about how to handle local challenges to the underlying data – including areas that are served and unserved – that props up the FCC’s map. 

“The states have had a lot of questions about how to do this and we are working on guidance for them,” Morris said to a conference room containing mayors from cities across the country. “So we appreciate your [mayors] input as well as we’re thinking through how much guidance and what type of guidance…as states come up with their own state challenge process.” 

Morris added that the NTIA knows there are a lot of other data sources that determine served and unserved areas and that the states will have “more flexibility” in the challenge process, as the FCC is generally constrained by legislation for mapping data. 

What cities can do now for BEAD preparation

Morris also advised cities on what to do now to prepare for when the BEAD allocations are made. 

“Document the connectivity challenges in your communities…we want to make sure those needs are reflected in the five-year plan,” she said, alluding to the applications for BEAD funding. 

She also urged, as many before her have, for the mayors to meet with their state broadband offices, which she called the “center of gravity” for federal broadband funding.  

Finally, she also asked for the mayors help “spread the word. It’s not easy reaching the unconnected and we want to make sure that folks understand the good work that is possible within these programs and that people feel connected, not just the leaders and politicians in the state, but really the folks on the ground in communities, that they understand what’s happening and feel connected to these programs.” 

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Funding

Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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