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Former FCC Commissioner O’Rielly Emphasizes ‘Unserved’ As Priority for Infrastructure Bill Funds

Whether infrastructure money should prioritize those with the lowest speeds has been a chief debate since the bill’s passage.

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WASHINGTON, March 15, 2022 – Setting the speed threshold too high for federal infrastructure funding will move money away from a focus on the unserved, said a former Federal Communications Commissioner.

Mike O’Rielly said on a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event late last month that the 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps requirement for money from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act will see funding flow to better-connected areas, which cost less to update versus installing basic speeds in unserved areas. The argument is in-line with critics who say that speeds in some rougher and harder-to-reach areas require at least some connectivity at first, with gradual increases.

Under the IIJA, “unserved” Americans are those without access to the current 25 Mbps x 3 Mbps federal standard, while “underserved” are those without access to 100 Mbps x 20 Mbps.

O’Rielly was following up on an op-ed he wrote for Broadband Breakfast, which includes a concern that money from the infrastructure bill would go toward areas that are already adequately connected.

The former FCC commissioner made a similar argument nearly a year ago, when he said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that an initial proposal for 100/100 symmetrical speeds is “out-of-touch” definition of broadband. His chief complaint was that these speeds exceeded consumer needs and that federal dollars for these speeds would just go toward areas already adequately covered.

There has been much debate about how the bill should prioritize service to individuals without access to 25/3 Mbps internet speeds – the current federal standard – as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is preparing to doll out $42.5 billion to the states for builds.

The policy debate has received input from officials as high ranking as a U.S. senator, with Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee urging an initial focus on the unserved during a bipartisan panel of senators at the CES 2022 conference earlier this year. (Blackburn was the only senator on the panel to vote against the IIJA.)

What about “newbuilding”?

Opponents of O’Rielly’s view of prioritization feel both unserved and underserved populations should be targeted simultaneously, and that a lack of focus on the underserved operating with relatively slow internet speeds would represent a failure for the IIJA. Chip Pickering, the CEO of INCOMPAS, a trade association for telecom competition, made that argument when he said overbuilding isn’t a bad thing so long as those federal dollars are going toward new, better and faster networks.

Responding to O’Rielly’s position at last month’s BBLO event, Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of open-access telecom SiFi Networks, said he is less focused on the unserved-underserved debate and more focused on public funds going to areas that private capital cannot reach.

Screenshot of Drew Clark, Mike O’Rielly and Ben Bawtree-Jobson

O’Rielly doubtful on new FCC map this summer

O’Rielly also stated that the foremost priority should be on the FCC getting an updated broadband map to allow the NTIA to proceed with dispensing the infrastructure bill funds.

And while Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the new map could come this summer, O’Rielly said he thinks that timeline will “slip.”

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event and REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022, 12 Noon ET — A Forum With Broadband Breakfast Expert Opinion Authors

Broadband Breakfast is a leading source of news and events focused on broadband policy and internet technology. We cover the Washington broadband scene, just as we are part of this community. One other important function we serve is as the host of the premier “Expert Opinion” forum on all things broadband. We publish Expert Opinion articles topics including broadband infrastructure, broadband’s impact, and the role of Big Tech companies. In this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session, Editor and Publisher Drew Clark will interview the authors of recent Expert Opinions on Broadband Breakfast

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Michael O’Rielly, Former Federal Communications Commissioner, Principal, MPORielly Consulting, LLC
  • Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO, SiFi Networks
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson is CEO of SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and owns FiberCity networks. Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties in cities make use of FiberCity networks, which also offer connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications.

Michael O’Rielly served as a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 through 2020.  He is currently President at MPORielly Consulting Inc., a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Media Institute.  Before joining the FCC, Mr. O’Rielly held a variety of leading staff positions during 20 years on Capitol Hill in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, ending as Policy Advisor in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

Fiber

North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber

North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.

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Screenshot of Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division

September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.

Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.

According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.

Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.

GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.

Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.

Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.

In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.

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Funding

NTIA Middle Mile Director Stresses Need for Infrastructure to Withstand Climate Events

The director of the middle mile program said applicants must show “climate resilience” to get funding.

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Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

WASHINGTON, September 8, 2022 – The director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s middle mile program on Wednesday stressed the importance of ensuring projects can withstand natural events, such as storms, to get funding from its $1 billion program.

Sarah Bleau said Wednesday on a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event that – despite the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act not mentioning climate resilience, the notice of funding opportunity for funds requires that a plan be in place for infrastructure resiliency against climate- and weather-related events.

Applications for funding are due September 30.

NTIA wants letter of credit, proof of area in need

Bleau also emphasized the need for applicants to show proof of an area to be served and to get a letter of credit, which will be requested by the agency from the bank. A letter of credit is a letter that’s addressed by a banker to a correspondent stating that the person named can draw upon the writer’s credit up to a chosen amount.

Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

The letter of credit is intended to help the NTIA evaluate what level of risk the applicant is at. Bleau has had to address controversies surrounding the letter of credit during a virtual session on the program, saying it is “not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment.”

Bleau also fielded questions about extensions to apply to the program, saying there currently will be no extensions.

Among the other most-asked questions about the program, she said, include the use of matching funds to facilitate infrastructure grants. In almost all cases, applicants are required to provide a 30 percent match for grant proposals.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process, an Event Headlined by NTIA’s Sarah Bleau

Most of the attention from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been focused on last-mile broadband deployment. But the deadline for IIJA’s Middle Mile grant program is coming up on September 30, 2022. In this special Broadband Breakfast Live Online session, we’ll begin with a brief headline presentation by Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, speaking about the $1 billion program, how the agency is handling the program, and how Middle Mile grants will impact the $42.5 billion last-mile broadband program.

Panelists:

  • Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  • Doug Maglothin, Executive Director, Diamond States Network
  • Mark Goldstein, President of the International Research Center
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Sarah Bleau (center) joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in February 2021 as the Middle Mile Program Director. She took on this leadership role for the Broadband Infrastructure Program in Fall 2021 and saw the program through to the award recommendations and announcements made in February 2022. Sarah has extensive industry experience from spending the better part of her career buying, building, and selling fiber networks Sarah holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Doug Maglothin (left) is presently serving as the lead on the Diamond State Networks middle mile project which is the largest and fastest networks of its kind in all of Arkansas. Founded by electric cooperatives, DSN’s goal is to make Arkansas the most significantly connected state in the country by promoting fast and affordable broadband to every corner of the state. Working alongside the coops, Doug helped to develop Diamond State Networks from its inception in 2020 as a consultant by way of his firm, Leverage Broadband Strategies where he serves as a Partner and Chief Strategy Officer.

Mark Goldstein (right) is chairman of the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council and president of the International Research Center.

Drew Clark (moderator, not pictured) is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative in Illinois. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Photo from the National Association of Counties

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Fiber

In ‘Office Hours’ Sessions, NTIA Addresses Questions of Middle Mile Grant Applicants

Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that the Middle Mile program is not for last-mile grants.

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Photo of middle mile project

WASHINGTON, September 7, 2022 – With the deadline for the application of Middle Mile grants three weeks away, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has held six of 12 “office hours” question and answer sessions.

Among the questions raised by prospective applicants during these sessions include the use of in-kind contributions, the role of the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 in demonstrating broadband availability and speeds, what role anchor institutions play in middle mile projects, and addressing concerns about the required letter of credit.

In a Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 12 Noon ET, Sarah Bleau, middle mile program director at NTIA, will headline a discussion of “Evaluating the Middle Mile Grant Application Process.”

Broadband Breakfast on September 7, 2022 – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process

With $1 billion in funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Middle Program is among the smaller broadband funding measures offered by the NTIA. But with a September 30 deadline, it is one of the first programs available for award.

Unlike NTIA programs for last-mile broadband, or for state digital equity grants, Middle Mile grants are open to individual companies and institutions that apply. NTIA will receive the applicants directly. NTIA officials have been responding to these questions during “office hours” sessions held on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. See information about the 12 “office hours” sessions.

Role of the FCC’s Form 477

During one “office hours” discussion, NTIA officials addressed how applicants may use evidence of underrepresented and unrepresented people by drawing on broadband data available through the FCC’s Form 477.

The FCC’s Form 477 has been much-criticized and is headed for a revamp. On Friday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the agency is aiming for November to release the first draft of its new broadband map.

Rosenworcel, who previously said that the map is expected to emerge this fall, said in a note from the FCC that it has completed the first filing window for submitting “extensive location-by-location data” on broadband availability, after service providers were required by the agency to submit such data by September 1 – the day before the release of the note.

But because that new broadband data won’t be available until after the September 30 Middle Mile grant deadline, “office hours” panelists and presenters addressed how existing broadband data can at least provide basic information about locations and broadband speeds being provided at particular locations.

This can help applicants visualize the availability of broadband. And  speaking at one of the sessions, Alec MacDonell, telecommunications systems specialist at the FCC, highlighted the Urban Rate Survey. It is a report published annually by the FCC compiling data on the fixed voice and broadband service rates being offered to consumers in urban areas.

In addition, MacDonell and others participating in the “office hours” have said that applicants for the middle mile grant program should pay careful attention to the role that anchor institutions – typically universities, schools and libraries – play in planning for an implementing middle mile grants.

Letter of credit and no last-mile funds

During multiple “office hours” sessions over the last three weeks, Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that this program is only for middle mile grants. Last-mile projects will not be considered and are not eligible for funds.

Addressing controversies over the required letter of credit, Bleau said that the letter is issued as a guarantee for payments. financial transactions among two separate parties, usually not taking on any risk in the process.

“It’s not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment,” Bleau said.

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