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What’s the State of the IIJA? Panel 1 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 1 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 1 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Moderated by Gabriella Novello, Assistant Editor, Communications Daily, Kenrick Gordon, Director, Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband, Hannah Hill, Principal, Boston Consulting Group, Phil Murphy, Senior Advisor, Office of the Assistant Secretary, NTIA, Glen Howie, Director, Arkansas State Broadband Office.

For a free article summarizing the event, see Local Leadership and Coordination Key to Proper Federal Fund Allocation, Conference Hears: Local communities understand their own needs, said Arkansas’s Glen Howie, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Some States Confused about Changes to NTIA Model Challenge Process

The new guidelines specify that only subscribers of 100 * 20 Mbps service will have speed tests accepted.

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Screenshot of the FCC broadband map website

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2023 – The National Telecommunications and Information Association has changed the model challenge process for main broadband program to specify that the agency’s standard will only accept speed tests from locations with extremely high-capacity broadband.

The new guideline, which the NTIA characterizes as a clarification, means that only subscribers of service at 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) upstream and 20 Mbps downstream will have their speed tests accepted.

This specification means that all those considered “underserved” will not be eligible to challenge actual speed measurements with speed tests.

The agency’s model process under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program was first released on June 28 as a template for states to accept and process challenges to their broadband map data ahead of allocating their portions of the $42.5 billion in BEAD funds.

Speed tests, conducted by subscribers while meeting certain methodological standards, show their actual internet speeds are one form of evidence states can accept in these challenges. The program considers areas with access to speeds in excess of 100 Mbps upload and 20 Mbps download – 100 * 20 Mbps – to have adequate broadband access and makes them ineligible for funding. Money is targeted at areas receiving speeds below 100 * 20 Mbps, called “underserved,” and areas receiving below 25 * 3 Mbps, called “unserved” areas.

Other ways to challenge reported coverage

There are other ways reported coverage can be challenged. The availability of reported coverage can be contested, for example, with evidence providers do not offer plans at the speed they are recorded as providing in government data.

The initial release of the model process included the sentence “If the household subscribes to a speed tier of between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps and the speed test results in a speed below 25/3 Mbps, this broadband service will not be considered to determine the status of the location.”

In the updated version — changed on August 30, 2023, according to the NTIA’s change logs — does away with this, specifying “only speed tests of subscribers that subscribe to tiers at 100/20 Mbps and above are considered.” 

Screenshot of the updated model challenge process language.

That means, for example, speed tests from a subscribers to a 80 * 10 Mbps plan showing they receive speeds of 23 * 2 Mbps would not be accepted. Only tests from subscribers to 100 * 20 Mbps or faster showing lower speeds would count toward changing that location’s service designation.

The NTIA said this update does not constitute a change in policy, but was made to clarify an existing rule: only locations marked as served can challenge on the basis of speed.

Screenshot of the original model process, stating speed tests from subscribers between 100*20 and 25*3 Mbps showing actual speeds below 25*3 could be used to disqualify the advertised coverage.

The new specification has caused confusion

This has caused confusion in some state broadband offices. Jessica Simmons, executive director of the Georgia Broadband Program said her office was under the impression that consumers who subscribe to an internet plan offering speeds in the underserved range could submit – through an allowed challenger like a nonprofit or state government office – speed tests showing that they receive speeds below the unserved threshold.

“Rather than clarification, it did seem like a policy shift to us,” she said. “We believed it seemed clear that an underserved location could be changed to unserved.”

States are required to submit their challenge processes in the first volume of their BEAD initial proposals – documents outlining implementation plans for the program – on December 27.

Georgia released volume one of its proposal on Tuesday. Simmons and her four-person team made sure to change the language in their proposal to reflect the new model process.

“If it’s coming from the NTIA, you know, we’ve got to get our plan approved,” she said.

In total, 14 states and Puerto Rico have released their volume one. They all base their challenge processes heavily on the NTIA’s model, with all but three adopting it in full. Vermont, Delaware, and Ohio made minor changes that do not relate to speed test processing.

Eight use the language around speed tests from the original model.

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Broadband's Impact

Tech Trade Group Report Argues for USF Funding from Broadband Companies

Consulting firm Brattle Group said in a report the move would be economically sound.

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Screenshot of Chip Pickering, INCOMPAS CEO

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2023 – Tech company trade group INCOMPAS and consulting firm Brattle Group released on Tuesday a report arguing for adding broadband providers as contributors to the Universal Service Fund.

The USF spends roughly $8 billion each year to support four programs that provide internet subsidies to low-income households, health care providers, schools, and libraries. The money comes from a tax on voice service providers, causing lawmakers to look for alternative sources of funding as more Americans switch from phone lines to broadband services.

The Federal Communications Commission administers the fund through the Universal Service Administration Company, but has left it to Congress to make changes to the contribution pool.

The report argues that broadband providers should be one of those sources. It cites the fact that USF funds are largely used for broadband rather than voice services and that broadband adoption is increasing as phone line use decreases.

“The USF contribution base needs to change to account for the fact that connectivity implies not just voice telephone services, but predominantly broadband internet access,” the report says.

It also rebuts arguments for adding tech companies like INCOMPAS members Google and Amazon to the contribution pool, saying they represent a less stable source of income for the program and that added fees for services like streaming could affect . 

The report is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between tech companies and broadband providers over who should support the USF in the future, with broadband companies arguing big tech should be tapped for funding as they run businesses on the networks supported by the fund.

Sens. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., and John Thune, R-S.D. established in May a senate working group to explore potential reforms to the program. The group heard comments in August  from associations of tech and broadband companies, each outlining arguments for including the other industry in the USF contribution base.

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Universal Service

Rural Providers Urge FCC to Verify Unsubsidized Coverage Ahead of Enhanced ACAM Awards

The FCC’s challenge process is insufficient to allocate Enhanced ACAM funds, the Rural Broadband Association said.

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Screenshot of Michael Romano, executive vice president of the NTCA

WASHINGTON, September 18, 2023 – Rural broadband companies are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to require unsubsidized providers to prove their coverage in rural areas.

The calls come weeks after the FCC announced funding offers under the Enhanced Alternative Connect America Cost Model, or Enhanced ACAM. The model allocates support to providers already receiving funding through the Universal Service Fund.

The new allocation of funds takes into account whether an area is already served at the required speed threshold – 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, faster than the previous Connect America Cost Model – by an unsubsidized provider. Areas the FCC deemed to be served only by an unsubsidized provider were excluded from awards and less money was made available to recipients operating in the same area as an unsubsidized provider.

Providers who were offered Enhanced ACAM funding must accept or decline their offers by September 29, but the FCC will accept challenges from awardees and make adjustments to the awards until 2025.

In a September 15 filing to the FCC, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association said the process for challenging these determinations is insufficient and urged the agency to require unsubsidized carriers to certify their reported coverage where Enhanced ACAM funds .

The challenge process is lacking, the association said, because it relies on the FCC’s broadband map and the accompanying challenge procedures. 

The map data includes maximum speeds available at a given location, but it does not reflect potential decreases in speed that happen when many people are simultaneously using a fixed wireless network – the technology many rural providers use – and does not include information on standalone voice service, which a provider must offer to meet the agency’s definition of an unsubsidized competitor.

The agency told Enhanced ACAM recipients to submit concerns on these and other issues not captured by the map via public comment in its docket system and to challenge unsubsidized coverage and speeds through its standard broadband map challenge process

FCC speed data is also difficult to challenge, the NTCA said in its filing. Challenges alleging a carrier’s provided speed is lower than that recorded in the data cannot be submitted in bulk, but must be submitted individually. That makes it difficult to determine if an unsubsidized provider offers lower speeds than they reported for large areas.

Requiring certifications from unsubsidized providers would provide “a well-structured and well-defined supplemental process,” for submitting challenges to Enhanced ACAM allocations, the association wrote.

The NTCA met with agency officials ahead of the award announcements to ask for the same certification, according to an ex parte filing from July 24.

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