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Utility Companies Vital to Expanding Fiber Broadband Infrastructure, Company Executive Says

The length of time and expense of building out infrastructure make electric utilities uniquely suited to the task.

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Photo of Scott Pell, vice president of quality for FiberRise

WASHINGTON, August 24, 2022 – Electric utility companies will play a key role in the building out of America’s fiber infrastructure by providing their own cables and access to utility structures, according to a consultant at a Fiber for Breakfast event on Wednesday.

Scott Pell, vice president of quality for FiberRise, a consulting company that assists cooperative electric utility companies with broadband provision, said the length of time and expense of building out broadband infrastructure make electric utility companies uniquely suited to the task because they have existing structures that can carry fiber and can provide their own fiber infrastructure.

The comments come after Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., earlier this month introduced to the Senate the GRID Broadband Act, legislation that would make grants available to those who can build middle mile fiber infrastructure along existing municipal rights-of-way and use existing assets, such as utility structures, to more quickly build out broadband infrastructure.

Rural communities often lack adequate broadband coverage due to low population density – fewer users per mile of fiber means less revenue. In order to overcome this obstacle, utility companies that own fiber networks lease their “dark fiber” – fiber infrastructure that is unused – to internet providers in area. For the builders of infrastructure, this model provides a return on investment, and for ISPs, it provides the “middle mile” network that is necessary for their “last mile” delivery of service to homes and businesses.

Some “co-ops” are non-profit and consumer-owned, with the concept originating in the 1930s to put an end to the lack of electricity that was then commonplace in Depression-era rural America. Pell said FiberRise believes that co-ops have the potential to once again provide the infrastructure necessary to bring rural areas into the modern world.

In addition to co-ops, other types of utility companies are taking part in broadband expansion. In an article for The Pew Charitable Trusts, Broadband Access Initiative’s Anna Read and Lily Gong argue that investor-owned utilities will also be crucial broadband’s rollout nationwide.

“By employing and upgrading existing electric infrastructure owned by IOUs in middle mile networks, both electricity and broadband providers save money while expanding broadband service to rural communities,” the authors write.

Read and Gong detail IOU success stories in various states. In Mississippi, for instance, a single partnership between Entergy, a utility company, and telecom C Spire resulted in over 300 miles of new fiber infrastructure. That project spanned 15 counties and cost $11 million.

Pell said he believes that a greater spirit of partnership at utility companies and service providers will be necessary in the future. According to Pell, utilities and providers need to keep in mind the crucial role played by broadband infrastructure in America’s economic growth.

Infrastructure

Utilities Coalition Warns Against Shifting Cost of Replacing Poles

‘Utilities have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it.’

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Photo of linemen on a pole from 2015 by Lisa Meiman

WASHINGTON, January 23, 2023 – A coalition consisting of 37 electric utility companies serving 31 million households is warning the Federal Communications Commission that shifting the cost burden of replacing wood poles to house communications equipment onto utilities will make them less likely to take voluntary action to help telecoms expand.

The Coalition of Concern Utilities said in a letter Thursday that the FCC’s current study into whether it should order utilities to share in the cost of replacing poles should factor what those utilities have been doing on a voluntary basis – “prematurely” replacing their poles for telecoms despite it diverting resources from “system reliability, grid modernization and clean energy initiatives.

“Despite these disincentives to prematurely replacing poles for communications companies, utilities for four decades have been willing to perform these voluntary pole replacements because they have been compensated for it,” the letter said.

Traditionally, pole owners can invoice to a telecommunications company the cost of replacing the entire pole if it feels the equipment to be attached would warrant it.

The coalition added that submissions to the commission to “modify this longstanding, carefully balanced and successful cost reimbursement mechanism would cause many utilities to reconsider, for the first time in four decades, whether dropping everything to perform voluntary and premature pole replacements is worth the time, effort and expense.”

Shifting even some part of the cost to the utilities would likely be absorbed by them, the coalition argues, because the utilities will be “hard-pressed” to justify to state utility commissions “how pole replacements solely necessitate by communications attacher requests is a benefit to electric rate payers.”

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Broadband Mapping & Data

NTIA Working on State Guidance for Further Map Challenges After BEAD Allocation: Official

An agency official said states have asked for guidance on how to handle local challenges.

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Photo of NTIA Senior Policy Advisor Sarah Morris at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2023 — A senior advisor to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said Thursday that the Commerce Department agency is working on crafting guidance for states about how to approach local map challenges after it allocates the $42.5 billion from its flagship broadband program. 

The NTIA is preparing to allocate money to the states from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, following the closing of the deadline Friday to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s maps on which that funding is dependent. The agency, which has already decided on a base of $100 million for each state, has said it expects to allocate all remaining funds by June 30. 

Sarah Morris, a senior advisor to NTIA head Alan Davidson who was expected to appear at the Conference of Mayors Thursday but could not – said the agency has fielded questions from state officials about how to handle local challenges to the underlying data – including areas that are served and unserved – that props up the FCC’s map. 

“The states have had a lot of questions about how to do this and we are working on guidance for them,” Morris said to a conference room containing mayors from cities across the country. “So we appreciate your [mayors] input as well as we’re thinking through how much guidance and what type of guidance…as states come up with their own state challenge process.” 

Morris added that the NTIA knows there are a lot of other data sources that determine served and unserved areas and that the states will have “more flexibility” in the challenge process, as the FCC is generally constrained by legislation for mapping data. 

What cities can do now for BEAD preparation

Morris also advised cities on what to do now to prepare for when the BEAD allocations are made. 

“Document the connectivity challenges in your communities…we want to make sure those needs are reflected in the five-year plan,” she said, alluding to the applications for BEAD funding. 

She also urged, as many before her have, for the mayors to meet with their state broadband offices, which she called the “center of gravity” for federal broadband funding.  

Finally, she also asked for the mayors help “spread the word. It’s not easy reaching the unconnected and we want to make sure that folks understand the good work that is possible within these programs and that people feel connected, not just the leaders and politicians in the state, but really the folks on the ground in communities, that they understand what’s happening and feel connected to these programs.” 

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Funding

Mayors Urged to Get Moving on State Conversations for Federal Broadband Funding

Time is running out to have cities’ voices heard at state broadband roundtables.

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Photo of Scott Woods (left) and Jase Wilson

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Representatives from a company that helps internet service providers and local governments get federal broadband money urged mayors of cities across the country Wednesday to quickly get involved in the process by actively engaging their state broadband offices or get left behind.

Scott Woods and Jase Wilson, vice president for community engagement and strategic partnerships and CEO, respectively, at Ready.net told the 91st United States Conference of Mayors in Washington that time was running out to have their voices heard at state roundtables.

Woods noted that the current version of the Federal Communications Commission’s maps are “overstated,” meaning there are inaccuracies in it. But if cities don’t have a plan or don’t come to the state broadband offices and plead their case for better connectivity, they will be left out.

The pair asked the packed conference hall at the Capitol Hilton whether they had conversations with their state broadband offices, but the vast majority did not raise their hands.

“The opportunity is now,” Wilson urged, adding the company’s Broadband.money has created a site and a broadband audit allowing mayors to get them up to speed. Broadband.money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, has said that the accurate delivery of the money to connect the underconnected will be contingent on the readiness of the FCC map, which had a deadline to challenge its contents on January 13, 2023.

Each states is expected to be allocated at least $100 million by June 30, with many states receiving much, much more. After the June 30 kickoff, entities, including cities, can apply for a piece of the pie.

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