Blandin Broadband Roundtable Roundup: Notes on Rural Development Opportunity Fund from May 5, 2020

From roundtable host, Bill Coleman…

The FCC’s Rural Development Opportunity Fund and the impact of the Frontier bankruptcy were the topics of the day yesterday on the first of a series of broadband roundtable discussions happening every Tuesday morning at 9 am CDT.  Everyone is welcome and you can find the Zoom registration link at broadband.blandinfoundation.org under the webinar heading.

The consensus of participants was that the RDOF reverse auctions will be critical to currently unserved areas broadband future.  The program rewards the deployment of high-speed, low-latency broadband networks which is great.

While the auction will be held this fall, prospective bidders must complete their short-form application soon.  This is a real opportunity for local units of government to plan with their preferred provider partners.  It is important to be listed on the provider’s short-form application due to bidding rules. A community’s best role might be to create a partnership to help providers deploy to the surrounding ineligible areas.

The eligible areas are a patchwork of geography.  The preliminary eligibility map can be found here: https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/auction-904-preliminary-eligible-areas.  The FCC initially declared areas eligible based on their maps using provider supplied data.  Incumbent providers were then able to challenge that eligibility, essentially challenging the data that they had already supplied to the FCC.   You can see a map of those challenged areas here:  https://www.cooperative-networks.com/rdof-challenge-map/ .  The community route to challenge these maps is unclear, possibly requiring outreach to federal elected officials.

You can find some excellent introductory materials about the RDOF process here: https://www.adtran.com/index.php/rdof

Our second discussion topic was about the Frontier bankruptcy.  This process is generally outside of state regulatory processes. It is possible that Frontier will emerge stronger out of bankruptcy with the removal of debt.  Frontier recently sold their exchanges in three states, so we discussed possible buyers here in Minnesota.  We also discussed the relative approaches of an entity purchasing existing Frontier assets and customer base as opposed to simply overbuilding in those areas.  It is possible that Frontier may acquire long-term subsidies via the RDOF process.

The roundtables are a great opportunity to bring both your knowledge and your questions to share with the Blandin team and other community broadband advocates.  We will start our next roundtable with a discussion of speed tests.

Now available – Model Broadband Feasibility Study Request for Proposal

Good information is required for good decision-making, especially when the consequences of those decisions are important and expensive. For community leaders working to improve local broadband services, good information is usually acquired by hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study.

Study elements generally include the following: a review of existing networks and services; a market study; technology options; legal structures and/or partnership agreements; operations; and financial projections. The study process should drive decision-making so that on completion, the community has a strategy with committed leadership that leads to the desired goal – better broadband services.

Selecting the right consultant is critical. They need the right mix of technical and financial expertise, plus know how to work with community clients. While private sector providers have a well-defined decision criteria and decision makers, these things are more fluid and complex in a community broadband initiative.

Over the years, Blandin Foundation has funded many broadband feasibility studies. In fact, the demand for grant funds for this purpose has never been higher. We have created a model RFP for communities to use as a base document that should be customized to meet specific community objectives. A focused study scope will yield detailed analysis critical to good decision-making.

You can find the sample RFP and a list of possible consultants on the Blandin Foundation site. 

5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

bill rightA guest post by Bill Coleman
(Download as White Paper)

5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

Minnesota legislators are now hearing that a market-based broadband solution is near. 5G wireless to the rescue!  Learning that public dollars would not be necessary for rural broadband development would be soothing music to elected officials’ ears as other groups line up for funds– roads, schools, health care, tax cuts; the list is endless.

After all, many counties and regional entities are growing desperate for broadband and are actively studying the options for spurring broadband delivery to meet at least minimum FCC broadband standards.  Alternatives range from subsidizing incumbents to partnering with new or existing broadband cooperatives.  While the State of Minnesota is seen as the major finance partner, even townships are writing checks for broadband!

So the question “Is 5G coming to rural America anytime soon?” is critical for policy leaders and elected officials.  They wonder, “If we wait, will our future pass us by?” Conversely, they question “Will our investment in fiber be a waste of money as wireless becomes the preferred and available technology?”

After doing a lot of reading and talking with technologists, it is clear that 5G wireless is coming to the marketplace, but it is not coming to rural America anytime soon.  5G wireless does offer promise, but only to high density population centers such as  campuses, large office buildings and apartment buildings.  5G’s chief feature is very high bandwidth– 1 Gigabit or more!  Once established, 5G promises to have the ability to connect many devices with very quick responses, especially applicable for self-driving vehicles or many smart devices in a factory, on urban streets and so on.  5G would also be great for large file sharing applications like HD movies.

So why not 5G in rural areas?  That answer is easy and indisputable.  Deployment of 5G wireless services will require significant fiber deployment, more than either the current 4G wireless cellular network or the new CAF2 Fiber to the Node (FTTN) installations by large incumbent providers.

Rural 5G wireless services would require installing radios every 1,000 – 3,000 feet on towers and poles.  These small cells would require direct fiber connections and all of them would require electricity to power the radios.  The radios would connect to wireless devices in customers’ homes and to other devices on the network and, of course, back to the network backbone.

For comparison, today’s fiber-fed 4G towers might be four to fifteen miles apart depending on terrain and the number of customers.  We know that 4G services have yet to reach many rural customers at their homes since these services are often focused down state and federal highway corridors in tandem with existing fiber routes leaving those in the bulk of the rural countryside without modern service.

In today’s CAF2 environment, providers are making significant investments to deploy FTTN, shortening copper loops to approximately 7,500 feet.  These shorter loop lengths will allow some customers to exceed the 25 Mb download and 3Mb upload FCC broadband standard while others at the end of the line will more likely receive 10 Mb/1 Mb. While this may be a significant improvement from current services, it lags far below the Minnesota broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026.  Optimists view these CAF2 improvements as an interim step to future FTTH deployment; others view these improvements as the last incumbent investment for a generation.

There are many questions yet unanswered on 5G wireless technical standards and final standards may be years in the making. There are just as many questions on the different business models that will drive deployment in urban, suburban and rural markets.  These deployment strategies will likely vary by location and provider mix.

For example, ATT and Verizon are dominant wireless carriers seeking to use more wireless in their old wired local exchange areas.  They could relatively easily transition their landline customer base to the new 5G networks adding to their existing wireless customer base.  In Minnesota, these wireless companies use a combination of their own networks and leased facilities from a variety of providers to reach large customers, but primarily to reach cell towers.

In Minnesota, incumbent providers CenturyLink and Frontier are just one year into a five-year process to deploy their CAF2 FTTN networks.  Once completed in 2020-21, likely to coincide with 5G technology and devices entry into the marketplace, will they be willing to open these deep fiber networks to competitive 5G wireless providers?  Or will they offer their own 5G wireless services on enhanced CAF2 networks?  Or, will these companies decline to sell access to their networks to wireless providers to preserve their own customer base.  In that scenario one has to wonder if there would ever be a business case for wireless carriers like ATT and Verizon to install duplicate fiber networks to reach rural customers?

So 5G is coming, definitely and soon, but only to metro areas, just as new technologies always seem to hit metro markets first.  But will and when will 5G reach rural?  For those rural residents and businesses still waiting for 4G wireless services, the answer is clearly not any time soon.  Fiber networks, to the home or to the node with very short loop lengths, will be a requirement to support future 5G wireless services.  First fiber, then 5G.  Not the other way around.

My advice: keep pursuing local fiber deployment so that all innovative broadband services – wired and wireless – can be offered in your community.

Steven Senne of Finley Engineering reviewed this article for technical accuracy.

 

Broadband hot topic at MN Association of Townships

bill rightIn the midst of rain and snow and wind, township officials met in St. Cloud last week for their annual conference.  Broadband was the topic of choice.  I stared with the following introductory presentation…

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Danna MacKenzie and two panels of presenters talked about rural broadband challenges and solutions.  Blandin Foundation community partners Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Chisago County and Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative were all featured as was the USDA and Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative.  It was great to hear of the winning solutions that will result in Fiber to the Home networks at Fond du Lac and north central Minnesota.  The value of partial solutions was also highlighted recognizing that more work and some luck will be required to reach a full solution.  The Minnesota Association of Townships has been a strong partner in an alliance of rural stakeholder groups, all of which recognize the foundational necessity of rural broadband services.

Southwestern Minnesota Counties Working Together on Broadband

bill rightLincoln, Murray and Pipestone Counties are three rural counties that have decided to work together on better broadband.  The counties share a similar mix of small communities and big farms on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.  They also see a growing number of neighboring counties getting fiber to their homes and farms, including Lac qui Parle, Swift, Big Stone and Rock Counties.

The leadership of these counties, staff and elected leaders alike, are worried that current broadband is hindering economic growth and detracting from their ability to attract manufacturing firms, other businesses and, most importantly, people due to the lack of broadband services.  More than 60 people attended one or more of three meetings held in Ivanhoe, Pipestone and Slayton, including a variety of broadband providers.

Attendees learned about the financial and technical challenges of providing high speed broadband in areas with such low population densities.  Those who live behind trees or in low valleys talked about their discussions with providers and challenges of even receiving wireless services.  They learned about the promise of the Connect America Fund 2 and when improvements might be coming.  In the future days, leadership teams from the three counties will meet to discuss the meetings, the input from residents and businesses and next steps.  Each county had 15 or more volunteers ready to team with county staff and elected officials on prospective solutions, including investing their own dollars to make expanded broadband possible.

Bill Coleman for policymakers – we must invest in broadband

bill rightEarlier this week I was invited to testify before the House Committee on Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance committee, but didn’t get the chance to say what I had prepared. Here is the testimony I prepared and would have delivered.

Good afternoon Chairman Garafalo and members of the committee.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

I will quickly address three related topics:

• The difference between broadband goals, broadband standards and the broadband marketplace
• The impact of the CAF2 program on rural places, and
• The need for rural communities to be able ensure their own broadband future.

Regarding goals, standards and the marketplace.

In 2010, the federal government set a 100 Mb goal which is still in place. In comparison, since 2008, the FCC standard for broadband has accelerated from 768k to 25 Mb, a thirty-fold increase in eight years.

The broadband task force is also recommending a 100 Mb by 2026 goal as well as an interim goal of 25/3 by 2022. If the 25/3 goal is adopted, Minnesota would gain notoriety as the only state that has adopted a lower upload speed goal in 2016 than they had in 2010.

In comparison, the marketplace is moving faster than either the federal or state goal. Companies are deploying Gigabit and greater broadband in both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. This change is enabled by new technology of course, and in the Twin Cities by some level of competition.

In rural Minnesota, cooperatives like Paul Bunyan, CTC and others offer Gigabit speeds. Hiawatha Broadband and Midcontinent do as well. So Gigabit broadband is not just a Google dream – it is a reality. Those communities without Gb services know that they are falling behind in economic competitiveness and quality of life.

The 25 Mb FCC broadband standard is of little use as a current benchmark or goal, especially for state broadband funding. Looking forward, if we were to apply the same growth rate to the FCC standard over the next 8 years as the previous eight, the 2024 FCC standard would be 750 Mb.

CAF2 is a program that will provide band-aid improvements to broadband services in some rural areas, but alone, will not provide a ubiquitous long-term solution. To quote Jason Dale, president of Cooperative Network Services, a collaborative of Minnesota’s Gb providing cooperatives, “these large companies will deploy essentially the same technology as was deployed by broadband cooperatives 15 years ago, probably causing them to fall even further behind the current rate of change.”
While DSL can provide speeds in excess of 25 Mb to homes within a half-mile of the electronics, those living two miles away will see their speeds top out at 10 Mb or worse, depending on the condition of the copper network.

Based on these incumbent providers’ investment track record, the CAF2 program may be these area’s last significant technology upgrade for a generation. Can you imagine the shortcomings of a 10/1 Mb connection in 2022? And areas ineligible for CAF2 may not get any improvements at all.

The right of first refusal concept is comparable to an arranged marriage, a concept almost as old and out-of-date as DSL technology. Many rural Minnesota communities have experienced the reluctance or outright refusal of these incumbents to invest in greater Minnesota over the past decade or longer. Efforts to develop public-private partnerships have been rebuffed before even mildly serious discussions could take place.

Communities must to be able to select their partners based on shared mutual interests and goals. Considerations would include the quality of the planned infrastructure, its long-term economic development potential and the reliability of the partner over the long term.

The ability of a rural community or county to create a partnership with a provider to deploy a world-class, Gb capable network should be encouraged, not prohibited. Monopoly providers delivering inadequate services should not be protected from competition.

A world-class broadband network is defined by more than just speed delivered to a particular location. Communities must ask: Does the network go everywhere and connect everyone? Do we have the networks that tech savvy people in all industries desire and require? Can the local economic developer reach a provider decision-maker while working with prospective economic development prospects? Are those who live in outlying areas – farmers, doctors, entrepreneurs, retirees, tele-workers, students, and vacationers – able to connect to do what they want and need to do to enjoy a vibrant rural lifestyle?

Because those that can’t connect will go elsewhere to live and work. And others will never come. As greater Minnesota works on another significant challenge – to grow and maintain a skilled workforce – those places without broadband are already at a significant disadvantage.

I encourage you to set aspirational broadband goals, like the 100 Mb goal that was adopted by the task force. It would then seem smart to require that all state funds be used only to reach the 100 Mb goal and not the current 25/3 FCC standard. Ensure that state funds are well used and create a long-term platform for rural vitality.

Thank you.

Can your community host a Good Friday Broadband Breakfast?

bill rightThe broadband discussion is heating up at the Minnesota State Capitol.  A coalition of rural organizations are working hard to keep the rural voice on broadband front and center this year knowing that no state broadband funding is guaranteed until the final legislative gavel and Governor’s signature.

A growing number of local organizations are hosting broadband breakfasts on March 25th to provide an opportunity for local leaders from economic development, health care, education, business and community to talk with their local legislators about their local broadband situation.  If you want to host an event, please contact Bill Coleman, MN Broadband Coalition at bill@communityechnologyadvisors.com.  We have a template agenda and invitation.  You might also complete the community broadband assessment tool on the Broadband Coalition web site in advance of the meeting so you can talk about the ways your community’s broadband is either an asset or a constraint to community development.  We all know that the adequacy of broadband is more than just a bandwidth number.  You can find the assessment at http://mnbroadbandcoalition.com/?page_id=296

Early next week, we will publish a list of the breakfasts and activate our partner organizations to help spread the word through our health care, education, business and other partner organizations.