WASHINGTON, September 7, 2022 – With the deadline for the application of Middle Mile grants three weeks away, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has held six of 12 “office hours” question and answer sessions.
Among the questions raised by prospective applicants during these sessions include the use of in-kind contributions, the role of the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 in demonstrating broadband availability and speeds, what role anchor institutions play in middle mile projects, and addressing concerns about the required letter of credit.
In a Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 12 Noon ET, Sarah Bleau, middle mile program director at NTIA, will headline a discussion of “Evaluating the Middle Mile Grant Application Process.”
With $1 billion in funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Middle Program is among the smaller broadband funding measures offered by the NTIA. But with a September 30 deadline, it is one of the first programs available for award.
Unlike NTIA programs for last-mile broadband, or for state digital equity grants, Middle Mile grants are open to individual companies and institutions that apply. NTIA will receive the applicants directly. NTIA officials have been responding to these questions during “office hours” sessions held on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. See information about the 12 “office hours” sessions.
Role of the FCC’s Form 477
During one “office hours” discussion, NTIA officials addressed how applicants may use evidence of underrepresented and unrepresented people by drawing on broadband data available through the FCC’s Form 477.
The FCC’s Form 477 has been much-criticized and is headed for a revamp. On Friday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the agency is aiming for November to release the first draft of its new broadband map.
Rosenworcel, who previously said that the map is expected to emerge this fall, said in a note from the FCC that it has completed the first filing window for submitting “extensive location-by-location data” on broadband availability, after service providers were required by the agency to submit such data by September 1 – the day before the release of the note.
But because that new broadband data won’t be available until after the September 30 Middle Mile grant deadline, “office hours” panelists and presenters addressed how existing broadband data can at least provide basic information about locations and broadband speeds being provided at particular locations.
This can help applicants visualize the availability of broadband. And speaking at one of the sessions, Alec MacDonell, telecommunications systems specialist at the FCC, highlighted the Urban Rate Survey. It is a report published annually by the FCC compiling data on the fixed voice and broadband service rates being offered to consumers in urban areas.
In addition, MacDonell and others participating in the “office hours” have said that applicants for the middle mile grant program should pay careful attention to the role that anchor institutions – typically universities, schools and libraries – play in planning for an implementing middle mile grants.
Letter of credit and no last-mile funds
During multiple “office hours” sessions over the last three weeks, Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that this program is only for middle mile grants. Last-mile projects will not be considered and are not eligible for funds.
Addressing controversies over the required letter of credit, Bleau said that the letter is issued as a guarantee for payments. financial transactions among two separate parties, usually not taking on any risk in the process.
“It’s not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment,” Bleau said.
New Whitepaper Shows Long Wait Times for Fiber Construction Materials
The Fiber Broadband Association has said there is up-to 60 weeks of wait for materials necessary for fiber deployment.
WASHINGTON, September 20, 2022 – Covid-19 and other supply chain stressors have contributed to lead times of up to 60 weeks for materials necessary for fiber deployment and operation, according to a recent white paper from the Fiber Broadband Association.
Speaking at a web event Thursday, FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton presented some of the report’s findings. The waiting period for fiber optic cabling is 52–60 weeks, the report says, and lead times for other necessary goods – e.g., 10–20 weeks for cabinets and splitters, 20–35 weeks for multiport terminals, and up to six months for home equipment – are also extended. The report also notes shortages or inflated prices of raw goods such as plastics, resins, steel, aluminum, copper, and wood.
Prices in the fiber broadband industry are also affected by the global semiconductor shortage. For instance, the price of neon – necessary for semiconductor production – has spiked in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which halted production from a major neon manufacturer in Mariupol and another in Odesa.
President Joe Biden last month signed the Chips and Science Act into law, which includes $52 billion to incentivize domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips.
In addition, logistical bottlenecks still plague the supply chains, the report said: “COVID shutdowns continue in waves around the globe, with Chinese ports particularly hard hit this year. In April 2022, up to 20% of the 9,000 globally active container ships were stuck outside backed-up ports in various parts of the world. Almost a full 30% of that backlog was created by shutdowns in Chinese ports alone.”
Supply chain disruptions have contributed to the inflation currently disrupting the broadband industry. To avoid such disruptions, the FBA report recommends a series of strategies, including increased domestic sourcing of materials, supply chain diversification, and the utilization of AI technology.
“AI can help companies make short term, reactive decisions about how to source components, and it can also help them make longer-term planning decisions about where they will manufacture their goods,” the report says.
North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber
North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.
September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.
Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.
Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.
According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.
Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.
GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.
Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.
Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.
In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.
Fiber Providers Feeling the Heat of Inflation as Cost of Materials, Labor Rise
One fiber tools company says inflation is hitting broadband developers hard.
September 8, 2022 – Inflation-driven high prices for materials and labor are putting significant economic pressure on builders of fiber networks, Render Networks CEO Sam Pratt told Broadband Breakfast Tuesday.
Inflation woes have gripped America for almost a year and a half. The latest consumer price index report has year-over-year inflation at 8.5 percent. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s data for August 2022, the median hourly wage jumped 6.7 percent quarter-over-quarter.
The fiber industry is feeling the effects of inflation like all others. Pratt, who runs the software company that assists fiber construction companies, said that fiber developers that already submitted cost estimates in their government funding applications but haven’t yet ordered supplies or contracted for labor will likely run over budget due to inflation.
Consulting firm Dgtl Infra estimates that fiber optic cables cost $60,000–$80,000 per miles buried, up to sixty percent of which pays for labor. Taking the average of Dgtl Infra’s estimate – $70,000 per mile – as current, and if quarter-over-quarter wage growth remains at 6.7 percent – as it has since June 2022 – each new mile of fiber laid will cost an additional $4,814 in labor costs come November.
For a fiber deployment of 7,000 miles – the length of Google Fi’s project in Kansas City – the next three months would bring a labor-cost increase of $33,698,000.
Government officials warned last summer that the inflation problem could make closing the digital divide more challenging. One official from Minnesota said the increased cost of deployments could even be pushed onto consumers, raising their monthly bills.
Inflationary pressures make efficiency in the construction process incredibly important, Pratt said he believes, adding construction costs make up the vast majority of broadband funding. He said his company offers tools to allow users to digitally map all progress and to streamline workflows. Pratt said that extensive geospatial data allows builders to better identify and eliminate inefficiencies in the construction process.
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