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Bryan Darr: Federal Broadband Funding is Available for Local Governments

Ookla can help your community get the funding you need to provide access for all to the digital economy.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Bryan Darr, vice president of Smart Communities at Ookla.

Local governments, the clock is ticking.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set billions of dollars out on the infrastructure buffet table for local governments in the United States and there are more guests invited to the party than ever before.

This funding is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect your community and provide access for all to the digital economy. The question is: will you be at the front or the back of the line?

Ookla can help you. This article is designed to give you the information you need to get started on the path toward getting the funding you need for your communities.

Look to your state for funding

Historically, broadband funding has had a very top-down approach.

The Federal Communications Commission has held almost all the power to determine where federal broadband infrastructure dollars have been spent. But for the first time, state governments will have an active role in guiding these decisions.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directs $65 billion to improving broadband connectivity across the U.S., with $42.45 billion earmarked for building new infrastructure.

Once the initial FCC map has been released, each state that has declared their intent to participate through National Telecommunications and Information Administration will be provided a minimum $100 million to get the process started (U.S. territories will split an additional $100 million).

Much of the remaining $22 billion will target affordability, but more on that later.

The race for resources will be officially off and running.

Following this initial disbursement, there will be roughly $37 billion more to be awarded from the IIJA alone.

Many states are still sitting on billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Acts and broadband is an allowable expenditure for these remaining stimulus dollars.

Add to that the long running connectivity programs such as Connect America Fund, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Mobility Fund and the upcoming Rural 5G Fund, and all those programs combined approach $100 billion over the next decade.

Plan ahead to increase your competitiveness

Past programs have provided funding without setting proper expectations on results. More emphasis is now being placed on planning.

With a focus on estimated cost per service address, network design takes a front seat to ensure these resources are spent efficiently and state officials will be allowed to use up to five percent of this for mapping, designing, and cost estimation.

Most states are already planning, or already building, their own broadband availability maps. But if you have connectivity issues in your community, it’s time to make it known to those who will be responsible for directing funds and deciding which communities will see investment and which will not.

Ookla helped Loudoun County, Virginia secure $17 million

We have experience helping local governments navigate this challenging planning process.

When FCC Form 477 broadband availability data showed that nearly 100% of Loudoun residents have access to what the FCC defines as broadband (25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download, 3 Mbps upload), this was inconsistent with the connectivity experiences of county residents.

So the Loudoun Broadband Alliance chose to use Ookla Speedtest Intelligence® to create an accurate and reliable broadband access mapping methodology using real-world network performance data.

With this data, LBA identified a large number of unserved households in contrast to FCC data which showed them as served. Loudoun County was subsequently awarded over $17 million of funding to help eliminate the broadband gap.

Keep in mind that the maps will never be finished. They will change and evolve as the networks in your area grow.

Funded projects will need to be monitored for compliance and older networks will need to be watched for signs of deterioration. Everyone will need to keep an eye on progress, measure successes, and have the data to act early when projects go off track.

Acadiana, Louisiana used Speedtest data to win $30 million

With Speedtest data, the Acadiana Planning Commission was able to successfully challenge FCC maps on over 900 out of approximately 1,000 census blocks.

The APC applied for funding through the NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Program, which made $288 million in funding available to help close the digital divide in the U.S.. There were over 230 applicants, and only 13 grants were awarded.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited Acadiana in March to announce that the APC had been awarded a $30 million grant that will fund high-speed internet in 11 rural Acadiana communities.

Think big! Broadband funding is available for more than just infrastructure

Accessibility to broadband requires at least four components: infrastructure, affordability, equipment, and knowledge. The lack of any one of these means an individual does not have access to today’s digital economy.

Much of the focus has been on the lack of infrastructure in many rural communities, but infrastructure is the absolutely essential piece for anyone in any community to get connected.

The second component, affordability, often drives the last two requirements as people who cannot afford internet service often cannot afford the necessary equipment and, therefore, are less likely to have developed the knowledge to use it.

Tracking both of these two primary elements is key to understanding the digital divide.

You might qualify for funding in more than one of these four areas. For example, over $14 billion in a new Affordable Connectivity Program is included in the broadband portion of the IIJA.

Remaining funds include $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Grant Program and the $2 billion Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, as well as two more programs that will assist the USDA improve the internet in agricultural communities.

Agencies and local governments should work together

Cities should be coordinating with counties and other government entities within the same region — but someone needs to be in charge.

If your local government does not have an individual charged with coordinating all these efforts, there is bound to be duplication of efforts, wasted resources, stagnation of ideas, or all of the above.

Whether this person reports directly to the chief technology officer, chief information officer, mayor, or city manager, their purpose is to understand what all departments are doing in the space and coordinate discussions, grant opportunities, and overlapping initiatives to make sure that departments aren’t working at cross purposes.

Non-profits, community activists, and local corporations all have a stake in the success of these efforts.

Traffic problems won’t suddenly end at the municipal boundary. Improving traffic on one side of the line may create more problems on the other side. Working together with your neighbors is just as important as working with internal departments. The same can be said of both fixed and wireless broadband infrastructure.

Dig-once projects will score extra points in the competition to have projects selected.

Broadband is only part of the $1.2 billion infrastructure law. Roads, bridges, ports, and rail have billions of dedicated dollars as well.

Digging a new trench for a clean water system? Coordinate with the project to include conduit and fiber and your efficient use of taxpayer funds will likely be rewarded.

Consider funding for multiple technologies

As great as it might be to provide every service address in the country with a fiber connection, it may not make economic sense in some places.

But an important detail was clearly stated in the legislation that recognizes a technology neutral stance on solutions.

The rules are not yet complete on how the FCC and NTIA will award the IIJA funds and contend with challenges to their findings, but there are certainly far fewer restrictions on the ARPA funds that are already disbursed to the states. Many connectivity projects are already underway whether through infrastructure development, equipment distribution, or subsidies for affordable service.

Wireless services can get people connected much faster and there are several forms.

Traditional mobile operators are rolling out 5G and Fixed Wireless Access in some areas that can directly compete with traditional fixed services. Wireless internet service providers have launched coverage to homes and businesses that previously had satellite as their only option.

Some municipalities and school systems have launched private 4G LTE networks to connect underserved areas in their communities. And municipal Wi-Fi can still be an important part of an overall solution.

A portion of families may never find subscribing to a fixed network practical, but wireless services allow for easier movement and some don’t even require a residence. Understanding wireless network availability and performance across your jurisdiction is just as important as planning a fiber network.

And here’s a bonus — cellular and other transmission sites need fiber for any new 5G cell site. So if you know where your wireless networks need additional infrastructure, you can plan for places in the network to offer them accessible fiber connections.

If your state still has ARPA funds available, you still have an opportunity to make improvements and learn more about connectivity issues so you are better able to make your case for the IIJA funds as they begin to flow.

Ookla can provide you with the data you need to be competitive for federal funding

It has been said for years that broadband is the fourth utility.

Local governments have spent a lot of their resources managing the first three: water, gas, and electricity.

If any of those become unavailable, even for a brief period of time, their citizens will make their unhappiness known. Resiliency of these services will play a part in how elected officials are judged, whether the local government supplies these services or just manages an external provider.

If you serve in local government, you should anticipate the same expectations going forward for broadband in your community.

The internet has become vital to the way we live our lives, and access to it dictates much of our success both as residents and businesses. Recognizing connectivity as a critical service may have been a consequence of a pandemic, but that change in thinking is here to stay.

That’s why Ookla is here to help you learn more about the connectivity in your area.

We’ve already helped local governments secure tens of millions of dollars in federal funding in Loudoun County, Virginia and Acadiana, Louisiana. We are also working with state broadband offices as well as municipalities to help them gain visibility into network availability and performance.

If you want your community to take advantage of the billions pouring into improving connectivity, get in line before it’s too late.

Drawn from billions of Speedtest results, Ookla’s Broadband Performance Dataset provides governments, regulators, ISPs, and mobile operators with insights about the state of fixed networks and broadband accessibility. The Broadband Performance Dataset helps you identify unserved and underserved areas, prioritize investment opportunities to improve access to broadband, challenge funding decisions, and secure grants.

To learn more about the Broadband Performance Dataset, Speedtest Intelligence, and other solutions for your state and/or local governments, please contact us.

Bryan Darr is the Vice President of Smart Communities at Ookla. He coordinates Ookla’s outreach to local, state and federal governments and serves on CTIA’s Smart Cities Business & Technology Working Group. This piece was first published on Ookla’s web site, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Broadband Mapping Coalition Seeks to Bring Openness Back to Internet Data

The coalition will play a crucial role in broadband data as government implements the largest expenditure of broadband funds.

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Photo of Dustin Loup of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition

June 17, 2022 – Non-profit organizations and academic researchers seeking to ensure the openness and transparency of broadband data collection efforts have created an organization, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, seeking to gather resources on data and mapping.

Shepherded by the Marconi Society, this National Broadband Mapping Coalition has filed comments before the Federal Communications Commission and is ramping up its efforts to be a leading voice for open and transparent broadband data.

The group is led by Dustin Loup, of the public interest group Marconi Society. Loup has been actively involved in the internet governance and policy space for years. Together with Measurement Lab (which is led by Lai Yi Ohlsen), a non-profit group that has been collecting broadband speed data since 2008, these two organizations are poised to promote the vital role of open broadband data as the U.S. Commerce Department implements the largest expenditure of federal broadband funds in history.

Join Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Why we need open broadband data

In a recent piece on Broadband.Money, Sarah Lai Stirland details the importance of actual speed data in challenging existing Federal Communications Commission broadband data:

  • If you click on the census blocks around Newcastle in Broadband Money’s online map, you’ll see that the Federal Communications Commission data shows the blocks as “served” because at least one location has access to internet service of 1000 Mbps symmetrical service. That information is self-reported data from the form 477 that the FCC requires internet service providers to provide.Speed tests from Ookla and the non-profit M-Lab, however, indicate that that census block is, at the very least, “underserved” by the standards established by federal legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. M-Lab says that average internet speeds in the area are 22 Mbps * 5 Mbps and Ookla reports 63 Mbps * 6 Mbps.

Lai Stirland’s profile of Ohlsen and Loup also discusses her skills in computer science and project management, and Loup’s history of involvement in the internet by the Arab Spring.

On a personal level, I’ve been a strong advocate of the importance of public and open broadband data for more than 15 years. See “U.S. broadband infrastructure investments need transparency,” ArsTechnica, February 10, 2009. That op-ed recounts our efforts to obtain FCC Form 477 data in 2006 and 2007, followed by founding BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 to crowdsource the collection of broadband speed and availability data.

But this was superseded by the National Broadband Map, version 1.0, launched in February 2011. In that first national broadband map, State Broadband Initiatives (like the Partnership for a Connected Illinois) played a primary role in the collection of provider data about broadband availability.

But that national broadband map failed for two reasons:

  • Everyone in a census block was considered “covered” if one person in a census block was “covered,” or served with 25 Mbps * 3 Mbps broadband.
  • Broadband speeds were self-reported by providers, and there was limited fact-checking, or crowdsourcing, of actual broadband speeds.

Broadband mapping is about to become one of the most central issue in the rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without the crucial check of open and public data, broadband mapping runs the risk of falling victim to the same challenges of the last decade.

Who is the National Broadband Mapping Coalition?

The National Broadband Mapping Coalition lays out the problem, and the solution, extremely well on its web page – which is worth quoting at length:

  • U.S. policymakers, advocates, and researchers need access to more comprehensive and reliable data on broadband coverage in order to solve the digital divide. The data currently available is insufficient and often misleading. Through a partnership with leaders who value transparent, peer-reviewed, open data, we’re innovating a new approach to mapping broadband network analytics that will help stakeholders gain data-driven insight into this critical issue.
  • The Problem
    Millions of U.S. residents live without adequate broadband access. While the FCC collects self-reported broadband coverage data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that data is often inaccurate and incomplete, and does not offer a detailed, granular picture of connectivity and affordability gaps. Without more complete data, localities face barriers in making their case for securing state and federal funding that is intended to address these digital divides.We believe transparent measurement standards based on new and existing open-source and openly verifiable methodologies are necessary to provide communities with the tools they need to collect data on connectivity speeds, pricing, and availability.State, local, and U.S. Governments restrict data collection and/or sharing for a variety of reasons, resulting in the inability to provide full transparency. The work of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is intended to strengthen government broadband initiatives and provide the public with much-needed performance information….
  • Coalition
    We have convened a national coalition of leaders in digital inclusion, technology, research, and policy. Responding to an increased focus on broadband adoption and measurement at the federal level, as well as the continued failure to consistently and verifiably map existing broadband infrastructure, performance, and value, this coalition aims to establish best practices and enable communities, governments, and individuals to access information they need….

In addition to the Marconi Society and M-Lab, other charter partners of the coalition include Google (which has supported M-Lab since its launch), the Internet Society, the Institute for Local and Self-Reliance, and X-Lab. Read more about its vision and mission.

See also:

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

Ten Years After the Beginning of Broadband Data Collection Efforts, M-Lab Gathers to Celebrate,” Broadband Breakfast, August 8, 2018

M-Lab Celebrates 10 Years of Broadband Speed Tests, Discusses Work with Schools and Libraries,” Broadband Breakfast, August 16, 2018

Priorities for open broadband data research

Rather than creating one more map, the National Broadband Mapping Coalition is beginning to bring a greater clarity around the importance of open and transparent data for broadband.

In its recent filing at the FCC, the coalition discussed the comparability of quality of service metrics, with a particular focus on the basic forms of measurement: download and upload speeds and latency. But they say,

  • Speeds and latency are common metrics many people are familiar with, but they are not the  only metrics of Internet performance that matter to the quality of service. Jitter, packet loss, and  bufferbloat (latency under load) each have a direct impact on actual experience of Internet  users. When any of these metrics are performing poorly, it can be especially detrimental to the  performance of real-time applications that support activities, such as a telehealth appointment,  job interview, virtual classroom participation, or meeting a new grandchild from thousands of  miles away. These impacts on the quality of experience can occur regardless of the bandwidth.  Additional quality of service metrics such as network uptime and the mean repair time to restore  access are important metrics.  The Coalition recommends that the Commission takes steps to identify a set of measurable  quality of service indicators, including but not limited to those described in these comments.

No one said that broadband mapping was going to be easy. The more rocks that you turn over, the more dirt that you find. But the easiest way to improve and to course-correct is to be scientific. And that starts with open and transparent data.

Learn more by joining Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark in Friday’s Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! with Lai Yi Ohlsen and  Dustin Loup, on June 17, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Announces Video Tutorials to Assist Broadband Data Collection Filers

The tutorials are designed to assist filers in the ongoing effort to create updated broadband maps.

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Photo of Jean Kiddoo from Twitter

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday a tutorials program that will help guide providers to submit mapping data when the collection process opens up late next month.

The online help center is designed to provide filers with video tutorials and other resources to help them navigate new broadband data filing requirements and broadband availability data. It comes after the agency announced earlier this year that it is opening up the process of accepting broadband coverage data beginning June 30.

Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, said this program would “ensure that filers can hit the ground running on June 30.” The filing window will remain open until the deadline on September 1, 2022.

This effort to improve the accuracy of broadband data is a part of the FCC’s ongoing task of releasing updated broadband maps, which are expected to be published by the fall.

Many stakeholders in the industry have argued that the existing maps lack the granularity necessary to provide internet service providers, municipal entities, consumers, and the federal government with a complete picture of how served Americans are. The maps are expected to guide billions in federal dollars.

In March, CostQuest Associates began the work to create the broadband fabric that would be used for the existing maps following a failed challenge by LighBox. Individual states have also begun work on their own mapping independent of federal efforts.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Community Crowdsourcing Efforts Essential to Accessing Federal Broadband Funding

In the absence of reliable federal broadband mapping data, communities are taking matters into their own hands.

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Photo of Lai Yi Ohlsen and Dustin Loup by Jericho Casper

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 27, 2022 –Two data experts speaking at the Mountain Connect conference here on Wednesday said it was vital for the Federal Communications Commission to maintain transparency about its methods as it produces an updated broadband map.

The release of $42.5 billion in federal broadband funding through the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is contingent upon new broadband maps being produced by the Federal Communications Commission.

Agency Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has committed to delivering such maps by the fall. During a House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight hearing on March 31, when asked about progress, she said: “Absolutely, yes. We will have [complete] maps in the fall.”

Completed Maps Will ‘Absolutely’ Be Available This Fall, FCC’s Rosenworcel Says

Still, many are skeptical.

In particular, states and localities are involved in data collection, too – if only to have data to challenge FCC maps. Lai Yi Ohlsen, director of Measurement Lab, and Dustin Loup, program manager of the National Broadband Mapping Coalition for the Marconi Society, said that detailing methodologies will be important to the challenge process.

Loup recommended that communities announce speed tests and include a survey in order to get a sense of where the participant is located, what plan they are paying for and encourage participants to take the test multiple times to see how Internet speeds fluctuate at different hours of the day.

Ohlsen and Loup also said that communities should provide speed tests in different languages and partner with community anchor institutions, local media, and radio stations for publicity.

Questions about the new federal map

The new broadband “fabric” under construction by the FCC aims to address granularity issues of previous maps by enabling address-by-address data. But as to the legitimacy of the new FCC maps, the duo said that the maps will still paint an inaccurate picture of where broadband is and is not accessible across the country.

This is because the data used to create the new maps, they said, will be based upon industry-advertised broadband speeds and not actual user-experienced speeds.

This is particularly worrisome because funds under the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program will be awarded to each state and territory will be primarily based on the number of locations considered to be unserved with broadband, as defined by 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down by 3 Mbps up. This is why cities, counties, and states are currently creating strategies to crowdsource residents in order to develop their own broadband maps in the event that the FCC misrepresents internet access options available to their residents.

Challenge process

Although the NTIA is required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to use the FCC’s new mapping fabric, they will also be subject to new scrutiny.

In particular, local governments, nonprofit organizations and broadband service providers can produce their own data to challenge the eligibility of a locality for grant funding.

The challenge process will begin once the FCC’s new maps are made public. Any government entity or nonprofit with conflicting evidence will be able to file their findings through an FCC platform, said Ohlsen and Loup.

Providers will be automatically notified of the challenge and have 60 days to respond to the challenger, in order to try and resolve the inconsistencies. If the entities fail to resolve differences in the conflicting data, the FCC will be responsible for making the final decision.

Broadband Breakfast on June 29, 2022 — Broadband Mapping and Data

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, June 29, 2022, 12 Noon ET –Broadband Mapping and Data

Now that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Notice of Funding Opportunity has been released, attention turns to a core activity that must take place before broadband infrastructure funds are distributed: The Federal Communications Commission’s updated broadband maps. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as implemented by the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, these address-level maps from the FCC will determine the allocation of funds among states and serve as a key source of truth. Our panelists will also consider the role of state-level maps, the NTIA challenge process and other topics. Join Broadband Breakfast as we return to one of the subjects that we know best: Broadband data and mapping.

Panelist resources:

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