Forget dig once – what about gluing fiber to the road

I think this is a fascinating idea – using super sonic glue to “lay fiber” to save money. It’s being piloted now…

The city’s pilot project, which began in May 2017, is one of the first for a startup based in the greater Washington, D.C., area called Traxyl (stylized as TRAXyL). The company has patented methods to adhere fiber cables to hard surfaces using substances that should protect them from basically anything, from weather to 50-ton excavators.

The company’s still working out the exact formula it will use for the resin coatings, but central to the process is methyl methacrylate. Usually called MMA, road-managing agencies — more in Europe than the U.S. — typically use the stuff as a hardier version of paint for traffic markings. Sellers market it as an alternative that can stand up to abuse in colder climes. Some use it as a quick option for installing new floors.

They have a video on how it works…

How much is it?

“Our costs aren’t identified yet because we’re not at scale, we’re still a small startup, but we’re thinking about costs of $5 a foot and even lower with scale,” said Daniel Turner, Traxyl’s founder and CEO. “Trenching can be anywhere from $15 to $300 per foot, depending on what obstacles you’re getting into.”

I look forward to hearing how it goes. I live in St Paul. We have pot holes. Not sure how that factors in. Again – look forward to hearing more.

Toolkit to help Close the Homework Gaps for kids without broadband

Consortium for School Networking has a great toolkit for residents, schools and communities who live outside the reach of broadband. I’ll borrow from the Benton Foundation’s description…

This toolkit provides background context for the Homework Gap, addresses broader implications of household connectivity, suggests resources for scoping the problem, and details five strategies districts are currently using to address these challenges: 1) Partner with Community Organizations to Create “Homework Hotspots”, 2) Promote Low-Cost Broadband Offerings, 3) Deploy Mobile Hotspot Programs, 4) Install Wifi on School Buses and 5) Build Private LTE Networks. In addition, it outlines four steps school leaders can take to collaborate with local governments and their community to take a broader, more holistic approach to digital access and inclusion: 1) Assemble a Team and Develop a Shared Vision, 2) Assess Existing Community Resources, Gaps and Needs, 3) Engage Stakeholders and Partners and 4) Develop and Execute a Project Plan.

Broadband listening session: recipe for broadband success in MN and questioning why federal funding goes to DSL

Earlier today I attended a broadband listening session in Faribault hosted by Farm Foundation, NTCA, CoBank, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. and USDA.

The morning was divided into three sessions:

  • E-Connectivity Needs in the Upper Midwest with Bill Esback (Wisconsin State Telecom Association) and Steve Fenske (Minnesota Association of Townships)
  • Connecting Rural America with Danna Mackenzie (Office of Broadband Development), Kristi Westbrock (CTC) and Brian Zelenak (Mille Lacs Energy Coop)
  • Update from DC with Jannine Miller (USDA)

I was able to record most of it and I’ll share my notes below ASIS. There were just a few moments I wanted to highlight.

Bill Esback spoke about CAF 2 – federal funding from the FCC that is used to build out broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 up (10/1). A gentleman from Jaguar asked what the price cap carriers are putting into the ground. Esback said CenturyLink & Frontier are using DSL. AT&T is using fixed wireless. The follow up question was – why would the government want to fund a technology that’s already outdated? One upload will not be enough to push the technology up? Esbeck said it was a matter of resources – we did the possible, not the best.

Danna MacKenzie noted key pieces of the Minnesota broadband model – a model that at least 18 other states have looked at:

  • The broadband TF
  • Getting state speed goals in statute
  • The state surplus made it easier to get funding.
  • Establishment of the Office of Broadband Development – in economic development agency was helpful too
  • State mapping
  • Grants are helpful to encourage partnerships

An interesting recipe that other states want to follow. But more importantly in a year when the Task Force is scheduled to sunset and the funding wasn’t allocated – I think this could be a goal list for Minnesota. If we lose pieces of this roadmap, we may lose ground in being a national broadband leader.

Also I’m going to ask for a kind eye when you read the following more complete notes. After I left the meeting, we started the family drive to pick up a kid in Winnipeg. And we’re still on that drive. BUT I wanted to get these notes to people while it was still news. Continue reading

NTIA Requests Feedback on Improving Broadband Availability Data – deadline July 16

Lots of news on maps lately because they determine who is served, underserved and unserved and that often determines who gets funding and what speed upgrades will be acceptable to get that funding. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I hear from people often who believe the maps are wrong – at least they are for their addresses or area. Here’s your chance to let folks know how you feel.

From the NTIA

Much of America has been reaping the rewards of broadband for years, but there are still areas of the country that don’t have the connectivity needed to keep up with the modern economy. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 30 percent of rural Americans live in areas that lack broadband availability.

We know these gaps exist, but what we don’t know is precisely which areas of the country have insufficient broadband capacity. That makes it difficult to ensure that public investments in infrastructure are efficient and effective. Right now, the FCC’s Form 477 data, which is collected from broadband service providers, is our only source for nationwide broadband availability information. The Form 477 data program is valuable, but the data is not independently validated or verified. It is also reported at the Census block level, so that can lead to inaccuracies that overstate availability – especially in rural areas where Census blocks are large.

Congress recognized the deficiencies of the current broadband data collection process when it directed NTIA to update the national broadband availability map. Congress asked us to acquire third-party datasets to augment the information that is already available, in order to more accurately identify regions with insufficient capacity.

Today, we issued a request for comments seeking recommendations and feedback on potential sources of broadband availability data, as well as mechanisms to validate that data and any other ideas that can help to better inform broadband infrastructure planning. We want to know how the government can better identify areas that need broadband investments, so that we can be sure any taxpayer funds supporting broadband infrastructure achieve the goal of ensuring connectivity to all Americans.

NTIA has extensive experience collecting data on broadband adoption and usage in the United States, as well as collecting and verifying data from third parties. NTIA’s Digital Nation survey, in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, has gathered a wealth of information on use of computers and the Internet since 1994. Through our State Broadband Initiative, a five-year program that began in 2009, NTIA worked with every state, territory, and the District of Columbia to collect fixed and mobile broadband availability data for over 11 million Census blocks every six months.

We are seeking input from all stakeholders with an interest in broadband availability — including private industry; academia; federal, state, and local government; not-for-profits. Comments are due July 16, 2018. As we improve our ability to analyze broadband availability, we will arm policymakers and broadband program leaders with the information they need to ensure that all of America realizes the benefits of broadband.

Senators challenge FCC rural broadband map – that includes Senators Klobuchar and Smith

I regularly get emails from people who question various broadband maps. The biggest complaint is that their area looks served, but they know from experience that they aren’t able to get online to do the things they want to do. And it matters because those maps are used to determine funding and access to broadband tools (such as spectrum). So I wasn’t surprised to see this story.

MultiChannel  reports (although I’ve borrowed from Benton Foundation’s summary) …

Republican and Democratic senators are expressing concerns about the coverage map the Federal Communications Commission is planning to use to decide where to put more than $4.5 billion in rural broadband subsidies, and they want more time to challenge the agency’s findings. The FCC put out a map of areas eligible for Mobility Fund Phase II money over the next decade as part of its move to redirect wireless carrier subsidies where private capital was already at work for, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai put it, “something far more useful: bringing 4G LTE service to rural Americans who don’t have it today.”  But a group led by Sens Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) said the map is significantly flawed; the group wants the FCC to extend the window for that robust challenge by another 90 days. In a letter to Chairman Pai the senators said the FCC map shows areas in their home states that are purportedly served by 4G LTE, when experience on the ground suggests otherwise.

Both Senator Klobuchar and Senator Smith have signed the letter…

Dear Chairman Pai:

“As you know, many of us have expressed concern about the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s map of eligible areas for Mobility Fund Phase II Support (MFII). This map is intended to reflect areas that lack unsubsidized mobile 4G LTE service, but it unfortunately falls short of an accurate depiction of areas in need of universal service support. Therefore, the FCC’s challenge process will play an outsized role in determining appropriate eligible areas for MFII support. Communities in our states that are not initially eligible or successfully challenged will be ineligible for up to $4.53 billion in support over the next 10 years, exacerbating the digital divide and denying fundamental economic and safety opportunities to rural communities.

“While you have noted that state, local, and Tribal governments can participate in the challenge process, absent additional direction, they may remain unaware or unprepared to do so. We appreciate and encourage additional outreach to state, local, and Tribal governments on how they can participate in the challenge process. However, with less than 100 days remaining and additional state outreach presentations not yet completed, MFII challengers will struggle within the current timeframe to provide requisite information that will correct significant flaws in the current map. Additionally, the parameters for challenges have already changed once during the existing challenge timeframe through the Order on Reconsideration on April 30, 2018, altering existing measurements for challenges.

“In recent testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, you expressed that the FCC has “some flexibility [for] an extension of time” to ensure sufficient time for state and local governments, as well as carriers and other potential challengers, such as state farm bureaus, to fully participate in the process. To provide this additional time and encourage participation in the challenge process, we urge you to extend the current challenge process window by 90 days.

“The MFII process presents an opportunity to take significant steps to address the digital divide and preserve and expand mobile broadband in rural areas. We strongly urge you to ensure this opportunity is available to all communities deserving support through compiling accurate data that reflects our constituents’ experience, including providing additional time for challengers to submit data, conducting additional information sessions for state, local, and Tribal governments, and providing Congress with an update on final eligible areas before conducting an auction of support.”

Cooperative role in providing broadband – what, who, how, where and why?

The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives has published an in depth report on what’s happening with broadband and cooperatives – especially in Wisconsin – but they use one Minnesota example (Arrowhead Electric Cooperative) and regardless of location, the driving factors leading to the need and opportunity for a coop to provide broadband is similar.

The report provides a number of examples of what cooperatives have done. In the end, they determine there’s no one-size-fits-all solution but I think the range of solutions included are helpful to anyone in a cooperative looking at their options or anyone looking to persuade a cooperative to look into providing services in their area.

I’m just going to outline some of their high level observations.

Why would a cooperative get involved in broadband?

There is a perceived connection between potential for future community and economic development and access to broadband. A National Agricultural and Rural Development and Policy Center publication concluded that rural median household income grew at nearly twice the rate where broadband technology was adopted in households compared to where it was not adopted. 1

Unmet infrastructure need in rural communities is the major reason both telecommunications and electric cooperatives were organized in the early part of the 20th century. The business model which drove investor-owned firms did not support the capital intensive investment required to develop infrastructure in sparsely populated rural areas. Cooperatives were developed to meet the demand for reliable utility services that, both then and now, are critical to modernization, innovation, and future economic development in rural areas.

How can it make financial sense?

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, 42 percent of the nation’s electric distribution lines are owned by electric cooperatives. These lines cover 75% of the U.S. land mass to reach just over 12 percent of the nation’s meters, an average of 7.4 customers per line mile. This is much lower than investor-owned utilities, which average 34 customers per line. Public owned utilities, or municipals, average 48 consumers per line mile.20 Because electric cooperatives are organized and operated to provide service to member-customers rather than a return to investors, they have been able to develop and maintain the infrastructure to serve rural, sparsely populated rural areas.

How does it serve the mission of an electric cooperative to provide broadband?

Electric cooperatives’ primary mission is to deliver electric service to member-owners in a financially responsible manner. Boards setting the strategic direction for the cooperative have the fiduciary responsibility to assure that mission can be met into the future. However, as the necessity of broadband access grows, the lack of high speed internet is increasingly a problem for members.

In addition, technological changes that are affecting the architecture of the electric grid increasingly are making questions about broadband access more directly relevant to the electric cooperative’s own future operations. By upgrading the communications technology that is part of the cooperative’s electric infrastructure, a “smart grid” will allow cooperatives and their members to better manage energy demand and distributed energy functions that allow customers to contribute to the grid.24

Other values may also drive a cooperative board to explore providing broadband access. Many cooperatives are guided by seven cooperative principles, one of which embraces a concern for the community. In the case of electric cooperatives, management or boards often participate on local economic development boards and committees. The cooperative’s electric infrastructure is critical to community economic activity, which in turn maintains the cooperative business and supports future growth. The overlap between the electric cooperative membership and the community aligns the service goals to members with a service orientation to community.

They have a nice graphic on the spectrum of opportunities that cooperatives have to get involved with broadband in the community…

Steps to create change that might help drive the move to provide broadband…

Kotter’s eight stages for strategic change are:

1. Create a sense of urgency

2. Build the guiding coalition

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

4. Enlist a volunteer army

5. Enable action by removing barriers

6. Generate (and celebrate) short term wins

7. Sustain acceleration 8. Institute change

Pipestone County Broadband Feasibility Study: building broadband will require grants

With funding from the Blandin Foundation, Pipestone County worked with Finley Engineering and CCG Consulting on a study that would look at if and how the county might take on bringing better broadband to all corners of the county.

Here’s the executive summary of the Pipestone County Broadband Feasibility Study – check out the full study for greater details and next steps…

Finley Engineering and CCG Consulting submit this report of our findings and recommendations for the feasibility of finding a broadband solution for those parts of the county without broadband today. The county is typical of many rural counties where a substantial part of the county has or will soon have good broadband, including fiber, while other parts of the county have little or no broadband. The county is a textbook example of broadband haves and have-nots—with those without broadband living close to others that have it. This disparity will eventually harm those portions of the county without broadband and you can expect those areas to suffer lower housing prices and become places where families and business don’t want to be located.

Our study area looked at the feasibility of bringing broadband to the parts of the county that are not expected to have fiber construction over the next few years. We looked at three different business plan scenarios for getting broadband to everyone: 1) building fiber everywhere, 2) a hybrid plan that has a mix of fiber and fixed-wireless broadband and that covers the whole study area, and 3) a plan that just brings wireless broadband to the rural areas. Finley Engineering developed estimates of the cost of deploying each network option and CCG used these costs in the financial business plans to see if there is an economically viable model for providing broadband in the rural areas.

For each scenario we looked at a number of different options. For example, we looked at the difference of funding the project with municipal bonds or with commercial loans. We looked at different levels of customer penetration, including calculating the breakeven scenario, which determined the number of customers needed for the business to always be able to cover costs and remain cash positive. We also looked at the impact of the most import variables in the forecasts including customer pricing, interest rates on debt, and having the projects partially funded by grants.

Our analysis shows that it is not feasible to build broadband in the study area without some support from grants. That is not a surprising finding since the cost of building broadband to rural areas is high. This is particularly pronounced in Pipestone County since the areas we studied are entirely rural and don’t include small towns that might reduce the cost of building broadband. The analysis also shows that it will require more than the 50% grant offered currently by DEED if somebody wants to build fiber to the rural areas. We’ve seen this same result in other rural counties since the cost of building fiber to farms is so high.

It looks more feasible to provide wireless broadband to the study area. We know that is not the result the county was hoping for, but the Finley analysis provides for a fiber-fed wireless network that can provide speeds of at least 25 Mbps download to rural homes in the county. That would solve the immediate crisis for homes with no broadband. However, once built, the county will have to continue to push in the future to eventually get the network converted over to fiber.

The county has already taken the first steps of presenting these study results to potential service providers. Hopefully one or more of them will be able to seek grant funding from Minnesota DEED in the upcoming grant cycle this fall. But if that doesn’t happen then there are steps the county can take to be prepared to support a grant filing for next year.