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Infrastructure

Mountain Connect Kicks Off May 23

One of the nation’s top broadband conferences is right around the corner.

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WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 – The annual broadband conference Mountain Connect 2022 is set to kick off in just a little under a month on May 23.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on digital equity that has been brought to the forefront of infrastructure discussions, as once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunities have been made available to underserved and unserved communities. The digital divide is increasingly becoming a household phrase as more communities seek to improve their access to broadband.

This year at Mountain Connect, the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program — administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — will be center stage, and experts from across the industry will be featured on panels to discuss their experiences and expertise.

Featured speakers include Detroit’s Director of Digital Inclusion Joshua Edmonds, Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton, and Broadband.Money Founder and CEO Jase Wilson, alongside dozens of others from across the industry – bringing knowledge from both private and public backgrounds.

The conference will run from May 23 to May 25. Events will cover topics including the BEAD program, emerging technologies, and community broadband.

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.

Infrastructure

Supply Chain Transparency Legislation Important for Timely Broadband Bills

‘We want to make sure that the FCC has to…detect, problems long before they become crises.’

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Screenshot of Senator John Hickenlooper

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 25, 2022 – Senator John Hickenlooper, D-Col., said Wednesday at the Mountain Connect conference that legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission to catch potential supply chain problems early is part of a larger effort to ensure America is connected to high-speed internet in a timely manner.

The Network Equipment Transparency Act, introduced by Hickenlooper in February of this year, would make the broadband supply chain problems more transparent to “ensure an on-time rollout of the broadband programs managed by the Federal Communications Commission.”

“We want to make sure that the FCC has to monitor, and that they detect, problems long before they become crises,” Hickenlooper said, emphasizing the importance of leaders having foresight for future needs.

Hickenlooper said that the bill would shine a light on the supply chain disruptions that are impacting broadband projects, as billions in funding awaits rollout from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Already, supply chain issues are pushing fiber deployments back and causing concern among the industry. Such supply shortages are also causing existing fiber build supplies to increase in price.

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Infrastructure

Sen. Bennet Says Coloradans’ Complaints About Poor Broadband Drove Passage of Infrastructure Act

Expanding access to broadband has been at the top of many of Colorado’s local, state and federal legislators’ agendas.

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Photo of Michael Bennet from August 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 24, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for Coloradans to get better broadband, and the reactions that people felt as a result of their poor experiences with broadband motivated Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to craft legislation that ultimately led the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

Speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here, Bennet traced the history of how grass-roots reactions to the problems of poor broadband translated into legislation.

”Wherever I went in the state, whether it was rural, suburban, or urban, broadband kept coming up again and again,” Bennet recounted. “People constantly told me that broadband was too slow or too expensive to be of much use to their family, their farm, or their small business.”

A few months into the pandemic, he introduced the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act, a piece of legislation that would have allocated $40 billion in federal funds to states, Tribal Governments, and U.S. Territories.

Although the BRIDGE Act did not pass the 117th Congress, the language of the bill had a major influence on federal broadband policy that followed it, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the Senate in August and the House in November. The measure was signed by President Biden on November 15, 2021. It led to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program, the details of which were released on May 13.

BRIDGE Act a precursor to IIJA

The BRIDGE Act served as a precursor to the BEAD program in two regards. First, it put states in the driver’s seat to disperse federal funds in the place of federal agencies, under the theory that states have the best understanding of their surrounding communities’ needs.

Second, the BRIDGE measure significantly raised broadband speed standards, more than quadrupling the FCC’s long-held 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload standard by requiring that projects funded under the Act deliver no less than 100 Mbps symmetrical broadband connections.

IIJA upped the dollars spent on broadband by the federal government, but it dropped the speed requirements to 100 Mbps down and 25 Mbps up.

Other Colorado-focused broadband measures

Colorado state legislators are also active in other broadband measures, as outlined by Brandy Reitter, the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, and others speaking at the conference.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis issued a state executive order directing the Colorado Broadband Office to develop a strategic plan to connect 99% of Colorado households to high-speed Internet access by 2027.

Colorado’s most recent legislative session saw increased activity in the broadband space, with much of the legislation passed aimed at expanding broadband initiatives across the state in order to achieve the governor’s goals.

One key piece of legislation was House Bill 21-1289, which invested $75 million dollars of the state’s American Rescue Plan funds toward digital inclusion programs. Of that allocation, $35 million dollars went toward digital inclusion projects, including $20 million allocated to the Southern Ute Mountain Tribes; $15 million was invested in telehealth and telemedicine; and $35 million was allocated to a broadband stimulus grant program, to which ISPs and other providers can apply to access funding.

The final $5 million of the funding was allocated to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for the Digital Connectivity Program, which communities interested in building middle-mile broadband can access.

Senate Bill 21-60 allocated an additional $5 million to digital inclusion grant programs, managed by the Office of eHealth Innovation, and specifically set aside funding to offer discounts of up to 50% to Coloradans with telemedicine bills.

House Bill 22-83 set the framework for the Colorado Department of Transportation to put systems in place for permitting and use of rights-of-way.

Finally, House Bill 22-1306 shortened the time frame the Colorado Broadband Office reviews grants in from a 60-day timeframe to a 45-day time frame. This bill helps mitigate supply chain issues, as the price of supplies can often escalate by 10 to 20% within an additional 15 days.

Reitter said that these measures help state of Colorado to participate actively in every federal funding program possible,.

The state plans to take advantage of the NTIA’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program, and hopes to receive up to $700 million in funding from the program, based on data from the Colorado Broadband Office.

“We think this is a real opportunity to keep continuing the investment in broadband,” Reiter said of the BEAD program.

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Funding

Broadband Notice of Funding Availability Seeks to Balance Requirements with Flexibility

Alan Davidson says NOFO requires that grant recipients offer both low-cost service options and middle-class affordability plans.

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Photo of Alan Davidson at press conference after his remarks at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 24, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is attempting  to balance stakeholder demands to ensure new entrants to the broadband marketplace, while making certain the agency is a good shepherd of the federal funds, the administrator of the U.S. Department of Commerce agency said here Tuesday.

Alan Davidson, the assistant secretary of Commerce responsible for the agency that is spending the lion’s share of federal broadband money, said that NTIA will consider affordability to be an important consideration in making awards.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast editor and publisher Drew Clark, the pair reviewed the NTIA’s guidelines governing three new broadband grant programs that will see more than $45 billion in federal funding dispersed over the next few years.

Three Notices of Funding Opportunity were released on May 13, 2022. The largest one is for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, a $42.5-billion-dollar program aimed at expanding last-mile, high-speed Internet access across the United States.

Davidson referred to the released NOFO as the “starting gun” signaling for states to begin the sprint toward making funding and infrastructure deployment plans to connect local unserved and underserved communities to futureproof Internet connections.

Less than a week since the release of the notices, 25 states and territories have already submitted Letters of Intent to participate in the program, with 35 states and territories stating they intend to submit an initial proposal to access a share of the federal funding by the July 18, 2022, deadline.

Process for states to apply

The NOFO requires that grant recipients offer both low-cost service options and middle-class affordability plans over the resulting infrastructure. The NOFO offers states examples of different affordability plans to model, while also giving states the flexibility to define what can be deemed “affordable” within their borders.

Further, BEAD requires robust stakeholder engagement, and gives preference to grant applicants pursuing public-private partnerships, as well as those which demonstrate they have coordinated with local and Tribal Governments, and community-based organizations, in the creation of their applications.

In an effort to bolster economic development and the creation of new jobs within the United States, the NOFO includes a “Buy America” statute, which requires grant recipients purchase 55% of all network components being used from American manufacturers. During the keynote, Davidson reiterated that the NTIA will prioritize the deployment of fiber infrastructure over other technologies, including cable, DSL, and satellite.

Davidson explained that increased state and federal oversight should be expected to ensure federal broadband funds go to the localities where they are most needed. Oversight requirements are largely spelled out in the statute, but grant recipients can expect more post-award reporting requirements than have been necessitated by previous federal programs.

Davidson’s presentation raised some questions surrounding well-known industry supply chain issues, the shortage of fiber technicians nationally, and the issue of BEAD grant dollars being considered taxable income. Davidson replied to the raised concerns stating that the NTIA is eager to hear about stakeholder’s pain points, and that he predicts there will be an ongoing process of working with states on these issues.

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