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Appalachian Regional Commission Prepares Communities for Federal Broadband Money

The commission said it is helping communities prepare to apply for some of the $42.5B NTIA BEAD program.

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Screenshot of Curtis Hansen of Appalachian Regional Commission

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2022 – Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal state partnership agency in the Appalachian Mountain range, is working to improve broadband access ahead of billions in federal funding, according to its broadband program manager.

Curtis Hansen said during a Fiber for Breakfast event Wednesday that the commission is working with local leaders to help develop capacity for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment funding that is coming from the National Telecommunication and Information Administration. The only way to make sure the money makes an impact, said Hansen, is to ensure that communities are prepared to use it.

Hansen said ARC will soon deploy an outreach program at the request of the Federal Communications Commission to help people in the region sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps alleviate broadband cost burden for low-income families.

Counties under the care of ARC are disproportionately poor compared to the national average, with lower connectivity to the internet. According to an Appalachian Regional Commission report, only 78 percent of households in the region have a broadband internet subscription, compared to 83 percent nationwide.

The agency was established in 1965 by an act of Congress and includes 13 states and 423 counties, which cover over 25 million people. They currently invest approximately $30 million per year for broadband grants in the area to improve broadband connection for residents.

Contributing Reporter Teralyn Whipple, who joined Broadband Breakfast in 2022, studied marketing at Brigham Young University. She has reported extensively on broadband infrastructure, investments and deployment. She has also headed marketing campaigns for several small companies.

Tribal Broadband

Tribal Ready COO Adam Geisler Addresses Importance of Data Sovereignty to Tribes

The federal government has failed to uphold its trust responsibility to provide health, safety and welfare to Native American tribes.

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Photo of Tribal Ready President and COO Adam Geisler speaking in January 2022

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 – A tribal broadband leader said Friday the federal government has failed to uphold its trust responsibility to provide health, safety and welfare to Native American tribes, speaking at an event in the broadband community on Friday.

The leader, Adam Geisler, president and chief operating officer of Tribal Ready, said that the digital divide persisted on tribal lands partly because federal agencies and internet providers haven’t met funding and deployment obligations.

In the “Ask Me Anything” event, Geisler, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, discussed his journey from being tribal leader to a division chief for tribal broadband connectivity at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and eventually to his role at Tribal Ready.

Geisler emphasized the importance of understanding tribal sovereignty, which he described as the ability of tribes to govern their people, lands, and processes. He highlighted the unique political standing of tribes in the United States and their relationship with the federal government.

One critical aspect of this is the importance of tribal data sovereignty, which involves control over the collection, access, and use of data related to tribes.

In addition to the federal government’s failure to uphold its trust responsibilities, industry broadband has had shortcomings despite being subsidized. Federal funding alone will not close the digital divide without policy and statute revisions for flexibility and practical application, he said.

Geisler also touched on the successful allocation of the 2.5 GigaHertz (GHz) band of spectrum to tribes, viewing it as a step in the right direction but insufficient in fully addressing connectivity needs.

He advocated for a mixed-technology approach to broadband solutions, recognizing that different technologies like fiber, wireless, and satellite can complement each other to provide comprehensive coverage.

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Broadband's Impact

New Senate Bill Would Tap Broadband and Tech Companies for USF Funds

The fund spends $8 billion annually to subsidize networks.

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Screenshot of Sen. Markwayen Mullin, R-O.K., at a Senate hearing on October 26.

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2023 – Three senators proposed a bill on Thursday that would tap broadband providers and tech companies to contribute to a major internet subsidy.

The Universal Service Fund is a roughly $8 billion annual broadband subsidy for low-income households, schools, libraries, and healthcare providers. It’s funded by fees on voice service providers, leading to talks of reform as voice revenues decline and broadband adoption increases.

The Federal Communications Commission administers the fund, but has left it to Congress to change the USF’s contribution base, citing doubts about the agency’s legal authority to make that change on its own.

A Senate working group, which does not include the senators who proposed the new legislation, has been evaluating potential reforms to the fund since May.  

Commenters to that working group largely supported fees on broadband providers as a more sustainable long-term solution for the fund. A more contentious point has been whether or not to call on some tech companies to contribute as well.

The argument is that tech companies which operate largely online, like Google and Amazon, should pay into the USF because they benefit so directly from more people being able to access broadband. 

Tech companies have opposed the proposition, saying broadband companies are a more stable source of funding. FCC Commissioner Brendam Carr and broadband companies publicly support the idea.

So does the bill proposed on Thursday. It would direct the FCC to expand the USF contribution base to both broadband and online tech companies, known as “edge providers.” Those edge providers would be limited to companies responsible for more than 3% of the country’s internet traffic and with more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

Multiple broadband industry groups came out in support of the legislation, including USTelecom, which represents major providers like AT&T and Lumen, and two rural broadband coalitions.

Conservative groups are also challenging the USF in court. The right-wing nonprofit Consumers’ Research and other organizations currently have four pending suits alleging the fund is unconstitutional.

They argue Congress gave the FCC unfettered authority to collect a tax by establishing the fund in 1996, and that the FCC abused that authority by delegating USF management to a nonprofit under the commission’s control.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reheard one such case with a full panel of judges on September 19 and has yet to issue a ruling. The Sixth Circuit struck down a petition from the group in May, while the Eleventh and D.C. circuits also have yet to issue rulings. 

Senators Markwayne Mullin, R-O.K., Mark Kelly, D-A.Z., and Mike Crapo, R-I.D., proposed the bill. Kelly, along with Senate working group leader Ben Luján, D-N.M., reintroduced another bill in March that would also direct the FCC to research the feasibility of tapping big tech for funds.

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Expert Opinion

Ryan Johnston: What Happens to BEAD Without the Affordable Connectivity Program?

We’d be building broadband to no one without the ACP. The ACP extends every BEAD dollar further.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Ryan Johnston, senior policy counsel at Next Century Cities

Congress dedicated more than $42 billion to help states and companies build out broadband networks to all Americans. This program, called the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, marked a crucial step towards bridging the digital divide in our nation. But this program will fail if Congress doesn’t renew the Affordable Connectivity Program that states are relying on to connect low-income Americans.

Bipartisan legislation from Congress made it clear that states needed to offer a low-cost broadband plan to residents to qualify for BEAD funding. For the uninitiated, the ACP is a $30-a-month subsidy that an eligible consumer can use towards any broadband plan a participating service provider offers.

In fact, many providers have started offering broadband plans at a $30 price point so the effective cost of broadband to the consumer is zero. Using ACP is an easy way for ISPs to meet the affordability requirement, a “short-hand” of sorts for them to offer affordable plans using an existing — and successful — model.

However, the ACP is expected to exhaust its funding in the first half of next year, leaving a potentially disastrous scenario for families who may have little savings or discretionary income. Ultimately allowing the ACP to end leaves a crucial question unanswered: what good are networks if people cannot afford to connect to them?

During a congressional oversight hearing in May, National Telecommunications and Information Agency Administrator Alan Davidson explained to Members of Congress that the BEAD program will be negatively impacted if continued funding for the ACP is not found. He emphasized that for low-income rural Americans, the ACP is the lifeline ensuring they can afford to access the internet. Without it, some providers may hesitate to deploy in rural areas over fear that the investment will be sustainable. Subscribership concerns may prove to be a limiting factor on which rural areas are served.

The ACP extends every BEAD dollar further. A study conducted by Common Sense Media found that the ACP could reduce the BEAD subsidy needed to incentivize providers to build in rural areas by up to 25% per year. According to the study, ACP reduces the per-household subsidy required to incentivize ISP investment by $500. Simply put, ACP improves the economic case because it 1) effectively lowers the cost of service, 2) creates a customer base with less churn, and 3) makes subscribers easier to acquire because of the massive public and private investment in raising awareness for the program.

But if the ACP is allowed to end, the federal government could end up overspending on every broadband deployment made through BEAD. This ultimately means BEAD networks will fail to connect millions of Americans.

The ACP is more than a simple affordability program; for over 21 million households; it’s a gateway to our ever-increasing digital society. Without it, millions of Americans will be unable to see doctors, visit with family, shop, and engage with their communities online. At the same time, the ACP plays a significant role in future infrastructure deployment. Allowing the ACP to end all but ensures that millions will be disconnected and future funding dollars won’t go the distance to close the digital divide.

Ryan Johnston is senior policy counsel at Next Century Cities. He is responsible for NCC’s federal policy portfolio, building and maintaining relationships with Federal Commissions Commission officials, members of Congress and staff, and public interest allies. Working with various federal agencies, Ryan submits filings on behalf of NCC members on technology and telecommunications related issues that impact the digital divide such as broadband data mapping, benchmark speeds, spectrum policy, content moderation, privacy, and others. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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.

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