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NTIA Official Acknowledges Clear Preference for Fiber in Infrastructure Deployment Program

Attendance at the fiber show jumped from 2,041 attendees last June to 2,854 registrants as of Friday.

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Photo of Andy Berke by Drew Clark

NASHVILLE, June 13, 2022 – A Biden administration official working on broadband infrastructure deployment said Monday that he wasn’t afraid to explicitly state that the U.S. Commerce Department favors fiber over other technologies.

“You will see that we have clearly expressed a preference for fiber,” said Andy Berke, who enjoys the title of “Special Representative for Broadband” at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department agency responsible for broadband funding.

“Fiber is future proof. If we put something in the ground, we know we are only going to have to put in the ground once.”

Berke was speaking at the kickoff of Fiber Connect here, the trade show of the Fiber Broadband Association. Attendance at the show jumped from 2,041 attendees last June to 2,854 registrants for this year’s conference as of Friday.

Fiber Broadband Association CEO Gary Bolton used his welcoming remarks to take a victory lap for the association.

‘If it’s not fiber, it’s not broadband’

“The market and our government have finally come to the conclusion that if it’s not fiber, it’s not broadband,” referring to the technology-specific tag line of his trade association.

Following the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, Bolton said, his group went to work crafting the a “playbook” for deployment of broadband that was issued jointly by the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.

Issued in March, Bolton said that he and NTCA are working to update the playbook based upon specific guidelines released by the NTIA in the notice of funding opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment. Those were released in May.

“While the NTIA NOFO was a huge victory for fiber broadband, the fight is far from over,” Bolton continued. “The rules are in our favor, but we need to work diligently with every state and every territorial broadband office and state policymaker to make sure that the nation’s broadband infrastructure is built with future-proof fiber.”

As mayor of Chattanooga, Berke touted the gigabit city

Berke, who hails a few hours down the road from Chattanooga, Tennessee, came on stage soon after Bolton finished.

As mayor, he led Chattanooga to become the first city in the country to offer symmetrical gigabit per second broadband service — available via fiber-optics — to every resident.

That service was offered by EPB, a subsidiary of the city’s municipal power provider.

Questioned about whether the agency was “starting to see some pushback about the preference for fiber,” Berke said that BEAD funds won’t go exclusively for fiber builds.

“The geography of Alaska and the density of Alaska are a lot different from Rhode Island,” Berke replied.

In spite of NTIA’s preference for fiber, it will be up to state broadband officers to make final decisions about which technology providers will receive their BEAD sub-grants. “It is not about the technology. At the end of the day, it is about being good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.”

“If we do it once” with fiber, the Biden administration will “save the taxpayers from having to do it again” in future years, Berke said.

U.S. senator from Tennessee makes an appearance

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagarty, R-Tenn., also came on stage and addressed the audience the briefly.

Hagarty, one of 30 Republicans to vote against IIJA in August 2021, acknowledged “concerns” about the measure, but also said that it represented a “tremendous opportunity.”

“The pandemic has underscored how critical broadband access is,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of Fiber Connect attendees in 2021. The number was 2,041, not about 1,500. The story has been corrected.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. 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 also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

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Fiber Providers Need to Go Beyond Speed for Differentiation, Consultant Says

40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds, said Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.

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Photo of Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research

WASHINGTON, November 9, 2022 – Despite fiber’s fast broadband speeds, providers must innovate and offer other benefits – like content bundling – to maintain market share as customers increasingly make purchasing decisions based on non-speed factors, argued Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research, a telecommunications and technology research firm.

“Our message to the cable industry is: Stop marketing on speed, put everybody on the gigabit tier, and start differentiating on everything else,” Chaplin said at a Fiber Broadband Association event Wednesday.

Chaplin also urged fiber providers to prepare to enter the wireless market, saying that wireless and broadband will soon “converge into one marketplace.

“It’s not a major differentiator or driver of consumers’ decisions today, but you need to start working on this as a product category to be ready for it by the time it [is],” he added.

And raw speed won’t be enough to attract customers, Chaplin argued. Although consumers say speed and price are the two top factors when considering internet plans, he said, his research shows that 40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds.

Typical speeds have greatly increased in recent years, and Chaplin said faster service provides no perceptible benefit to most customers once certain speeds are reached. According to his data, “Increases in speed (above 200 Mbps) really have no impact on the satisfaction of a household with their broadband provider.”

Fixed-wireless uptake shows speed isn’t always king

The rise of fixed-wireless providers, who usually don’t advertise on speed, further demonstrates that consumers are willing to make purchase decisions on other factors, Chaplin argued. In fact, his research shows that many new fixed-wireless customers did not make the switch due to speed complaints.

“If you’re in the fiber business, you’re in a strong position. You’ve got a product that wins in the market today, but you cannot afford to be complacent,” Chaplin said. “The battleground for consumers is going to shift and you need to be ready for shift when it comes,” he added.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to mandate “broadband nutrition labels,” which proponents say would help consumers understand the details of their internet plans. Researchers at the TPRC 2022 conference in September suggested that such labels should include “interpretive” data to explain the real-world implications of technical metrics. TPRC speakers also echoed Chaplin’s claim increased speeds do not necessarily correlate with higher customer satisfaction rates.

Industry players differ on substantive policy points surrounding the proposal, however, including whether labels should be mandatorily included on month internet bills.

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COVID Funds Ensuring NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Funding Adequate: Conexon Executive

‘The way you close the digital divide is you build fiber to every single rural home,’ Jonathan Chambers said.

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Photo of Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2022 – Millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, which are currently being deployed by states to extend broadband networks, is helping ensure that new broadband money allocated from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act will be sufficient to extend fiber to all homes in America, said a telecom executive on a Fiber Broadband Association web event Wednesday.

Since many states are using ARPA funding to deploy new networks, fewer than ten million locations will “be left for BEAD after ARPA,” said Jonathan Chambers, partner at rural internet service provider co-op Conexon, referring to the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Since the American Rescue Plan became law in March 2021, federal programs – including the Capital Projects Fund and the Emergency Connectivity Program – and state governments have put tens of billions of ARPA-appropriated dollars towards broadband various projects.

Chambers, whose company builds fiber networks and works primarily with rural electric cooperatives, said he wants to refute the arguments of fiber skeptics by going “to the hardest-to-serve, poorest places in the country and demonstrate you can build fiber there,” saying the company is working to build a fiber network to every home and business in East Carrol Parish, Louisiana.

An argument against fiber builds in rural areas has been the expense required to do so.

The BEAD program will dispense block grants to the states based on relative need. States will issue subgrants for broadband infrastructure and other projects. Pro-fiber advocates like Chambers and FBA President Gary Bolton support using these funds primarily for fiber deployments.

“The way you close the digital divide is you build fiber to every single rural home,” Chambers said.

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