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Regulatory Barriers Could Hinder Broadband Deployment, Senate Hearing Panelists Say

Panelists sought streamlined permitting processes on federal lands and in local communities, and reasonably priced pole access.

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Screenshot of Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association

WASHINGTON, December 13, 2022 – Onerous permitting regimes and other regulatory barriers could significantly hamper broadband deployment projects, executives from leading trade groups told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband on Tuesday.

Preparing to monitor the administrative state’s distribution of the largest American broadband investment to date, the subcommittee’s members asked the witness panel how government can facilitate the effective deployment of funds. The largest slice is the $42.5 Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, advocated streamlining permitting processes on federal lands and in local communities as well as ensuring reasonably priced pole access for broadband providers. Powell argued that entities exempt from federal pole-attachment rate regulations – which include cooperatives and municipalities – are incentivized to raise prices to ward off potential competitors in the broadband market.

Often, on federal lands, multiple agencies will claim the permitting authority, Powell said. Federal permitting fees are often exorbitant, he continued, and navigating these processes can “add years and years to a (company’s) commitment to build.

“These kinds of programs always have a tendency to attract layered-on regulatory requirements that are tangential to the mission of the program,” Powell said. “The consequence of that is it creates more complexity, additional burden, and raises the cost of an already fragile cost model.”

Congress should make broadband grants non-taxable, said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of US Telecom. The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act would do so for Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and American Rescue Plan Act grants. According to some on Capitol Hill, Congress may pass the bill by year’s end.

Powell and Spalter argued that poor communication between the myriad agencies that oversee federal broadband initiatives obscures which eligible areas have already received federal funding – to the detriment of industry players. “One of the challenges for regulators is to ruthlessly attempt to harmonize criteria…across these programs and make sure all take cognizance of the other[s] as they make their decisions,” Powell said.

Spalter suggested a certification process through which agencies would be required to confirm that new grants are not issued to already-funded locations. Panelists and senators voiced concerns about redundantly allocated federal funds at several points in the hearing.

Lujan on Build America, Buy America and workforce issues

The NTIA’s guidelines for the BEAD program mandate compliance with the Build America, Buy America Act, which favors domestic manufacturing and, according to many experts, raises prices on goods necessary for broadband deployment. In response to economic pressures, the NTIA proposed waiving this requirement for the Middle Mile grant program, and many have urged the agency to institute a waiver for the BEAD program.

“We should always strive to encourage more manufacturing here in the United States with both onshoring and near-shoring,” subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., told Broadband Breakfast after the hearing. “Democratic and Republican members have pushed for and have fought for the inclusion of equipment made in America,” he added.

Some have also criticized the NTIA’s worker-related policies, which, they say, will artificially drive up the cost of labor and network deployments. “The rules that are being applied by NTIA reflect the importance of having people…work in a way that they’re able to take care of themselves as well,” Lujan said. He further called on Congress to address potential workforce shortages – a concern of many industry players.

Europe

Helge Tiainen: Fiber Access Extension Eases Connectivity Worries for Operators, Landlords and Tenants

A new law presents an opportunity to reuse existing infrastructure for fiber broadband deployment.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Helge Tiainen, head of product management, marketing and sales at InCoax.

Previously, tenants living in the United Kingdom’s estimated 480,000 blocks of flats and apartments had to wait for a landlord’s permission to have a broadband operator enter their building to install faster connectivity. But that is no longer the case.

At the beginning of the year, a new UK law change meant that millions of UK tenants are no longer prevented from receiving a broadband upgrade due to the silence of their landlords. The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act allows internet service providers to access a block of flats 35 days after the ISP’s request to the landlord. It is estimated that an extra 2,100 residential buildings a year will be connected as a result.

Broadband companies have advised that currently around 40 percent of their requests for access to install connections in multi-dwelling units are delayed or blocked, due to no landlord response. Undoubtedly, tenants residing in these flats and apartment blocks are those most effected by a lack of accessibility to ultra-fast connectivity. So, how can ISPs grasp this newfound opportunity?

Harnessing the existing infrastructure

For many ISPs, MDUs pose a market that is largely untapped in the UK. Why is this? Well, for starters, typically these types of properties present logistical challenges, and are lower down in the pecking order in terms of the low hanging fruits readily available when it comes to installing fiber to the premises. The more attractive prospects are buildings in densely populated areas that can be covered easily with gigabit broadband.

Whereas, MDUs have typically been those underserved. Signing a broadband contract with a customer in a single-family unit is easier than an MDU as it involves securing permissions from building and apartment owners for construction works, as well as numerous tenants. For those ISPs tasked with upgrading tenants’ existing broadband connections, there are other challenges prevalent such as rising costs, wiring infrastructure changes and contract requirements, including minimum take-up rates.

So, there has been no better time to use the existing infrastructure readily available within the property. A fiber-only strategy can be supplemented if fiber to the extension point is employed where necessary. A multi-gigabit broadband service can be delivered at a lower cost and reach more customers over existing infrastructure for a short section of wire leading to the customer premises and inside the premises.

Bringing gigabit connectivity floor to floor

The UK government hopes that 85% of the UK will be able to access gigabit fixed broadband by 2025. However, installing fiber to every flat can be a challenge that is expensive, labor-intensive and disruptive to customers. Landlords may be hesitant to grant permissions due to the aforementioned reasons and potential cosmetic damage caused. Historically, fiber deployments in MDUs can be as much as 40% of fiber to the building deployment costs.

MDU buildings have existing coaxial networks, and reusing this infrastructure is a tangible possibility and time-saving alternative for ISPs instead of installing fiber direct to the premises. Which can be costly if the take-up rate is low for new services. The coaxial networks in MDUs can be used in an innovative way as in-building TV networks are upgraded to support higher frequency spectrums thanks to the analogue switchover to digital TV services.

ISPs can potentially opt to use fiber access extension technology for a cost-effective and less complex upgrade of broadband as it utilizes the existing in-house coax cable infrastructure. The technology provides multi-gigabit broadband services, positioning it as a clear frontrunner when optical fiber cannot be deployed due to construction limitations, a lack of ducts, building accessibility, and technical or historical preservation reasons.

Time for change

Not only does this landmark new law allow ISPs to seek rights to access a flat or an apartment if the landlord required to grant access is unresponsive, but it also prevents any situations where a tenant is unable to receive a service simply due to the silence of a landlord.

This is a crucial opportunity to reuse existing infrastructure for broadband access as TILPA enables subscribers and service providers to circumvent landlords who fail to provide access permission.

As many ISPs look to seamlessly execute their fiber deployment strategies, using cost-effective solutions can accelerate the addressable number of subscribers and allow for a major return on investment.

As head of product management, marketing and sales at InCoax, Helge Tiainen is responsible for developing sales and marketing of existing products and new business opportunities among cable, telecom and mobile operators by developing use cases and technologies within standard organizations as Broadband Forum, MoCA, Small Cell Forum and other working groups. He also manages partnerships of key technology partners suited with InCoax initiatives. 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 reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Panel Suggests Need for Tracking Mechanism for Broadband Infrastructure Funding

Panelists are concerned that states may not have had the prescriptive guidance needed to maximize funding.

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Photo of Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner of New Street Research

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – There needs to be a way to consistently track the billions in broadband infrastructure money coming from the federal government, panelists said at an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event Tuesday.

With $42.5 billion coming to the states from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, experts floated the idea of having mandated ongoing reporting requirements on what that money is doing.

“Money goes out from the government in broadband stimulus, but we don’t track where it’s going very well,” said Sarah Oh Lam, senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, a federal funded research and development center. “We really don’t know outcomes…and I don’t see many efforts in mandating that we collect data from this [stimulus] round from the grantees that receive money.

“After it’s out the door, not as much attention is paid to evaluation, tracking, really measuring: Did the ways that the money was distributed – was it effective? How could it be improved?” Oh Lam added. “So I really recommend that people working on this round of IIJA and BEAD funding put in that requirement to collect data from the grantees and to really report results five years out, 10 years out.”

The unprecedented $65 billion made available to broadband infrastructure by the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act is being seen as a once in a generation opportunity to provide access to high-speed internet to all Americans.

Piggybacking off that point, Brookings Institution senior fellow Nicol Turner-Lee said her research group is discussing their own version of a tracking mechanism, noting the number of broadband programs from BEAD to the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect.

“We are talking about a broadband dashboard, so something that is in real time because we have a lot of urgency” about this, Turner-Lee said.

“I think one way to increase public transparency about this spending is through some type of dashboard, that begins to show you where those investments are being made, what localities, what regions, what states, and the extent to which…just the improvement of data infrastructure — who’s involved with some of these decisions,” she added. “I think many of us are seeing states put together councils, but on the back-end we’re also hearing, ‘I didn’t know this was going on in my state.’

“Perhaps some of these dashboards can indicate that participatory process in addition to how the money is being spent, particularly as we lean in to where we are going to have to have some accountability on larger allotments of spending.”

Screenshot of the ITIF panel on Tuesday

However, Rob Rubinovitz, senior vice president and chief economist at trade association NCTA, said that’s all very difficult to do, adding the NCTA has tried that. He noted that the jurisdictions down to the county level do things differently, which means different ways of collecting data.

He suggested perhaps a more uniform way of collecting the data for all recipients of funding would help resolve the issue.

Concern about how states utilize funds

Along those lines, there was also some lingering concern on the panel about the NTIA’s guidelines for broadband funding being less prescriptive than it should have been.

Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research, said the guidance was vague in some areas – for example, in the case of a preference for open access networks, which allow other service providers to piggyback off of the same infrastructure – with the concern being “we’re going to end up with variability with how the funds are deployed across states.

Chaplin noted that $42.5 billion — $100 million for each state as a baseline — is not enough on its own to close the digital divide for the 14 million unserved homes in America, recommending that states maximize the draw of private capital to get the funding required to do that.

“Some states are going to do it much better than others,” Chaplin said, “and we could end up with some states missing this historic opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all.”

The NTIA is expected to allocate the rest of the BEAD money to states by June 30.

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Funding

NTIA Officials Urge Use of Agency Resources for Digital Equity Planning

Agency officials outlined helpful material for states looking to develop digital equity plans.

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Screenshot of Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at the NTIA

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2023 – National Telecommunications and Information Administration officials are urging states to take advantage of available resources when developing digital equity plans. 

The NTIA provides general technical assistance resources that the Commerce Department agency said both stakeholders and states will find helpful, including a list of best practices for digital inclusion activities, recommendations for preparing planning requirements, and a plan template. 

Accessing federal resources will set states on a “great path forward” to promote digital equity, said Richelle Crotty, technical assistance advisor for digital equity at an NTIA event Wednesday. 

Because stakeholder involvement is a crucial element to the program, the NTIA provides specific guidance on how to conduct accessible meetings and discuss keys to successful coalition operations.  

Stakeholder involvement cannot be overemphasized, stressed Katarina Smiley, digital equity advisor at NTIA. Communicate what the divide looks like in your community, share digital inclusion models and advocate for community research, she urged state leaders. 

The BEAD-DE Alignment Guide can help states align program requirements and coordinate activities across the NTIA’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and the Digital Equity Program. 

As part of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the $2.5 billion Digital Equity Program created three sub-programs to “ensure that all communities can access and use affordable, reliable high-speed Internet.” 

The first program, which is currently underway, provides $60 million for states to develop digital equity plans. The subsequent steps include $1.44 billion for implementing plans and $1.25 billion toward digital equity and inclusion activities. 

Currently, all 50 states have been awarded Digital Equity Planning Grants upwards of $4 million. Plans are required to identify the key barriers to digital equity faced by its population, measurable objectives for promoting broadband technology, steps to collaborate with key stakeholders, and a digital equity needs assessment. 

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