How the FCC wasted $45 billion on rural “broadband”

Earlier this week, I was on a phone call with Jonathan Chambers. His frankness is always refreshing. Between vaccines and dentist appointments, I was trying to write up a summary of what he has said and find a way to bring it up here. He saved me the effort in his new post, How the FCC wasted $45 billion on rural “broadband” and what the current FCC/Congress/Administration should have learned.

Here are the highlights…

  • Lesson Number 1: The digital divide was not a consequence of rural economics; it has been the policy of the federal government.
  • Lesson Number 2: Restricting funding to incumbents is a good way to protect incumbents and a bad way to do anything else.
  • Lesson Number 3: Proprietary tools and decisions by two or three people should not be the basis to determine how public funding will be spent across the nation. It’s time to open up the mapping, modeling and funding mechanism to the public.

Blandin Foundation helping Aitkin County expand and use broadband

Aitkin Age reports

Now, with the help of the Blandin Foundation Accelerate program – a 15-week program that helps both educate the community and develop the best solutions – the county could potentially be making some strides forward.

Over the 15 weeks of the Accelerate program, communities work together to discuss broadband development options, gather information from the communities on need and demand, analyze the data and then determine what the next steps should be moving forward.

The article looks at broadband in the last few years…

Among the progress made in Aitkin County through the 2017-20 Iron Range Broadband Community:

  • A Wi-Fi hotspot in Jacobson Community Center
  • High-speed broadband at Long Lake Conservation Center
  • Increase MyChart usage at Riverwood Healthcare Center
  • Community conference centers with computer lab, smart boards, digital equipment and community education
  • Wi-Fi networks for Palisade
  • Wi-Fi at Berglund Park in Palisade
  • Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at East Central Regional Library

However, while the cities are addressed, much of the population of the county lives in the more rural areas.

The Blandin project will meet the community where they are…

That’s where the Blandin project comes in. Jeffers, along with city and county leaders, is working on education first and foremost. He is to educate themselves and the public about not only what is available but also what meets the 100M/20M goal for the state of Minnesota.

“That’s part of the issue,” Jeffers explained. “It depends on which provider you’re with. It depends on whether it’s broadband high speed, or if it’s cable DSL.

“There’s a lot of variations in that,” he added.

Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin, said that many providers are trying to sell what they have – which may or may not be what the county needs.

“Most of the people in the space are trying to sell something,” Joselyn explained. “It’s challenging for local officials to find their way forward.”

Also…

The Blandin Foundation remains involved in order to address the need, as it has through facilitating its Cyber Partners program – teaching people how to use and participate through high-speed internet – and the Accelerate program.

“We’ve been working in broadband for almost 20 years,” Joselyn said. “Without out access to broadband and the skills to use it, there’s no future in rural communities. It’s absolutely critical.”

Broadband is happening around Ely with CTC, Midco and Treehouse Broadband expansions

There’s a lot of broadband activity happening in Ely these days between CTC, Midco and wireless options (Treehouse Broadband). Ely Timber Jay reports

Existing cable and internet customers who are frustrated with all-too-common service disruptions recently learned that Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for the Ely area.
The expansion and investment by the cable provider is an effort to reduce or eliminate service disruptions caused by fiber cuts and other sources of internet and business connections. Their recent investment announcement also appears to give the cable provider a bigger piece of the broadband pie in the immediate Ely area.

CTC is also building in the area…

CTC is in the midst of installing a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network in the city’s downtown corridor and is actively selling business services. In their first phase, CTC offers broadband technology to homes and businesses along Sheridan Street, and looks to offer business and residents internet, phone, and TV services along with business phone systems and IT services.
“We are scheduling a meeting with Midco at some point,” Langowski said. “We want to discuss where our project is and where their project is. I was a little concerned when I talked with (Midco’s) government affairs representative, who wasn’t aware of what we are doing or what our project is. I told him he must have been living under a rock. If he had read our local newspapers, he would have seen that we have been working on this for the last decade-plus.”
The first phase of the city of Ely’s CTC Broadband project is limited to the downtown area. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m not excited about (Midco’s) investment,” Langowski said. “I just want to make sure they don’t come in and overlay what we just did and cut us out of the market.”
Midco also announced that crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 capable of up to five Gbps. Connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, according to the cable provider.
The neighboring communities of Tower, Soudan and Babbitt will see similar construction activity with full FTTP network upgrades in 2023, company officials said.

Wireless is coming to the area too…

A wireless broadband project is also moving forward in the Town of Morse around the Ely area. Isaac Olson of Treehouse Broadband uses directional antennas operating on the radio frequency spectrum to provide high bandwidth internet service. With direct line of sight to their towers and repeater locations, they service customers in the Ely area. Unlike traditional satellite service, according to Olson, rain, snow and other weather has no impact on the frequencies and short-range transmissions he uses to deploy broadband.

Midco is expanding in other areas too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern Minnesota communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds from Midco in the coming year.
“All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet,” McAdaragh said.

Kandiyohi County is poising to use American Rescue Plan funding for broadband

West Central Tribune reports…

Kandiyohi County is gearing up to complete broadband projects in the county, with the hope it will be able to use money from the American Rescue Plan to help fund those projects.

The County Commissioners are poising to take advantage of any opportunity…

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package enacted by the federal government in March, the county could find itself with an influx of federal funding, an estimated $8.38 million, which early guidance says can be used for broadband projects.

The County Board work session was scheduled Tuesday to make sure the commissioners were up to date on county broadband challenges and opportunities.

“So when we get the federal American Rescue dollars, hopefully we can use some of those dollars for broadband, we can hit the ground running,” Kleindl said. “We want to be ready. Today we are at the starting blocks. We are putting our foot on the race and we are going to kick it off.”

They are already working…

Officials are now working on a new project with Federated Telephone Cooperative, to bring high-speed broadband access to Arctander, Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. The project is estimated to cost between $6,818,656 and $7,626,906 depending on the size of the service area to be included in the new project. The plan would provide broadband to nearly 600 properties.

The county has already approved a $25,000 grant to each of the townships for broadband expansion and Federated has said it will provide 25 percent of the project costs. All four of the townships are also on board, estimating to pay around $1,945,597 in total.

“Everybody will need to have some skin in the game,” said Commissioner Corky Berg.

The EDC is also applying for a state Border-to-Border broadband grant for about 50 percent of the project costs. Without the state grant, which is very competitive, the project will not be possible, Schmoll said.

They are asking residents to take the speed test to help the State recognize the need…

We know how important it is to get broadband out. We need citizens’help to do that,” Kleindl said.

This could mean writing letters to legislators, providing letters of support to the EDC and participating in the state internet speed test. In 2020, residents were urged to take the speed test. And while some did, more is needed.

“It is important for us to know where the underserved, unserved people are,” Kleindl said. “Do your part.”

How to prepare for NTIA’s new broadband grant programs

CTC Technology and Energy recent posted Four Strategic Steps Your Community Can Take Now to Prepare for NTIA’s New Broadband Grant Programs. Here is an abridged version…

  • Understand and document your community’s broadband needs
    Define your project area and evaluate your market. We know the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program will favor applicants who can serve the greatest number of households in an eligible service area. The other programs’ applications will include questions about the communities to be served, too. .. Watch out for existing federal funding.
  • Develop a technical analysis and cost estimates for construction, equipment, and operations
    Once you have the outlines of a project that will address your community’s broadband needs, start developing your technical and programmatic approaches—and, most importantly, the estimated capital and operating costs for implementing your plan.
  • Develop a business strategy
    Build partnerships. For localities that do not have experience operating their own networks, partnerships with established ISPs are a way to demonstrate operational capabilities. (NTIA will be specifically looking for public-private partnerships for the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.) … Start talking to potential partners now. … Develop a sustainable business model.
  • Create a grant checklist and start marking off the basics
    We expect NTIA’s grant application windows to be relatively short—so the more you can do to get ready now, the better off you’ll be. Start with the basics. For example, do you have Sam.gov and Grants.gov accounts? You’ll need both to apply to any of NTIA’s programs—and you can imagine how many other entities will be applying for credentials when the application rules are released. Do not wait until the last minute to set up these accounts.

Easy on ramp to understanding Emergency Broadband Benefit? Chris Mitchell’s Connect This! Video

Someone suggested I watch the Institute for Local Self Reliance Connect This! video on Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a $3.2 billion program designed to get families connected to available service that they otherwise might not be able to afford. Chris Mitchell is the host and he has three guests: Travis Carter (USI Fiber) Angela Siefer (National Digital Inclusion Alliance) and Olivia Wein (National Consumer Law Center).

These are three people who deal with different parts of the EBB and together they give a well rounded view. It’s a genius approach because they go in depth but not into the weeds. They want to share with each other information that practical and useful because that’s what each of them need to do. This isn’t academic to them, it’s their work. They are all going off the cuff, which make it easy to listen to and again keeps anyone from going into the weeds. They are asking each other real world questions.

Being honest, I thought I’d listen to a few minutes, then when I run into Chris at the grocery store I could say something – but I never turned it off.

St. Louis County is not waiting around for federal or state support – they are moving on broadband now

It feels like areas without adequate broadband have leveled up in this game of getting broadband. Suddenly more federal funding is becoming available and as state grants continue to be available, odds are better for the remaining areas to get awards. But this new level of what looks like abundance comes with its own challenges. We have seen with recent RDOF results that federal funding may have inadvertently thwarted local efforts to get state funding – leaving communities like Le Sueur County waiting to hear what happens to them next. For years we’ve seen federal CAF programs leave communities with speeds lower than they need and with vendors not meeting deadlines. So jus like our favorite videos games, level up can feel good – but it comes with new rules, assets and solutions.

So how to beat this new game of getting broadband. St Louis County has increased their level of engagement. GovTech reports

During a workshop session Tuesday, St. Louis County commissioners weren’t voting on anything, but they committed to one thing for certain — broadband Internet expansion. “We’ve got to be better than this,” Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, said. “We need to do better. We have seen firsthand that broadband is lacking in so many areas.” Jugovich was one of the commissioners who shared anecdotes about the lengths they’ve seen people go to find good Internet connections in rural St. Louis County.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a long-standing inequity in rural areas, they said, unifying the board in the name of action. “They need access,” Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said, describing those cars outside the Babbitt library. “The timing is right for us to develop some type of plan where we can be a player in the game.”

It’s time to act…

McDonald noted the “talking and talking” about a massive federal infrastructure bill, which hasn’t materialized despite several years of political promises. State solutions are progressing, but haven’t reached most rural places — where service won’t generate enough megabits to stream video in what has become a virtual meeting world.

The county is setting goals…

To that end, the board was met with a first-of-its-kind proposal which would bring St. Louis County into the broadband arena. Dubbed “Form 9000,” it would set goals to help fund broadband expansion to reach all county residents by 2023 with 25-megabits-per-second service, and 100 megabits per second by 2027. Upload speeds of 3 megabits per second and 20 megabits per second are included in the proposal.

Form 9000 is the draft of a program that’s been proposed to the board by county administration.

The board wouldn’t vote on it for some time. “We have set an internal goal of having the program finalized by Sept. 1, 2022,” Matthew Johnson, planning and community development director, wrote in an email.

Minnesota cooperatives West Central and CTC on steady path of expansion (Todd, Cass and Wadena Counties)

The Wadena Pioneer Journal reports…

The focus on broadband is a commitment West Central Telephone, Consolidated Telephone Company and area leaders and organizations have been in, and will continue, for the long-term.

Both cooperatives encourage new projects in unserved areas, as West Central CEO and general manager Chad Bullock and CTC director of business development Joe Buttweiler shared on March 12. During the Todd Wadena Development Summit, attendees thanked the providers for working on broadband issues.

“Our focus has been to the unserved areas,” Bullock said. “But it’s been a steady crawl.”

West Central got a state grant for a project in Wadena and Cass Counties…

While CTC is searching for new Todd and Wadena county projects, West Central will begin their rural Staples phase two project this year. They received a $465,050 grant from the state for 56 unserved locations in Wadena and Cass counties.

Wadena County district 2 commissioner Mike Weyer is excited about this project being completed in the Thomastown area. He said the project last year came about 2 miles from his home and is expectant of this one to finish providing service.

The second phase is expected to start as soon as possible and have fiber in the ground by this upcoming winter, according to Bullock. The service will include 1 Gbps download and upload speeds when completed.

EVENTS: NTIA Broadband Grant Programs Webinar Series

From the NTIA

(NTIA) will host a webinar series in April through July 2021 in connection with the three new broadband grant programs authorized and funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021: The Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and the Connecting Minority Communities Program. The webinars are designed to help prospective applicants understand the grant programs and to assist applicants to prepare high quality grant applications.

NTIA will hold the webinars based on the following schedule:

1. Broadband Infrastructure Program: The second Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET), starting April 14, 2021.

2. Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program: The third Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. ET, starting April 21, 2021.

3. Connecting Minority Communities: The fourth Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. ET, starting April 28, 2021.

These are virtual meetings. NTIA will post the registration information on its BroadbandUSA website, https:// broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov, under Events.

Blandin Foundation introduces CBR: Accelerate! to support communities who need a special push to better broadband

Metcalfe’s Law says that a network’s value is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network. In short, the more people in the network, the greater the value for everyone – not just for the new people. In Blandin Foundation’s work that means that each time a community gets broadband, it increases the value for that community and for those of us already online. We can buy or sell to that community, we can learn from or teach that community, government services can be provided online, saving taxpayers. The list goes on.

To help grow the network, Blandin Foundation is offering intensive Community Broadband Resources (CBR) assistance with a new initiative: CBR: Accelerate! They will be working with Kanabec, Pine,  and Aitkin Counties and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. These are communities that need better broadband. They are near the bottom ranking communities in the state. This isn’t due to lack of effort or interest, but more because of the characteristics in the community – difficult terrain, lower population density, or other.

Turns out approaching some of these communities requires more and different efforts than communities with engaged providers or higher population density. It’s like the difference between running a 10K and doing a triathlon – a very different race, so Blandin has created a different training program.  CBR: Accelerate! is a fifteen-week program, delivered online, will bring the CBR resources of coaching, leadership development, data analysis, and provider relationships to community leaders for the purpose of developing a plan to implement broadband infrastructure deployment projects.

The CBR: Accelerate! program starts today. I hope it is an energizing and fun as the first day of school for the participants. I’m hoping to get updates and share their progress over the next 15 weeks. We wish them well!

Survey shows communities want local influence on broadband funding and solutions

The Benton Institute surveyed a number of state and local leaders about broadband. They found a number of points of agreement:

  • Universal broadband is the 21st century equivalent of electrification, foundational to equity and economic prosperity in urban and rural communities alike. As the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress consider the most ambitious infrastructure funding bills since the New Deal, states and localities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the digital divide.
  • To close the digital divide, the federal approach to distributing funds needs to change. Respondents have the highest confidence in the abilities of local internet service providers (ISPs) and local economic development agencies to use federal funds for closing the digital divide.
  • States and local governments want to determine their broadband futures, which will require changes in federal funding distribution and program standards. Respondents call for funding dispersal at the state and local level, with the flexibility to deploy that funding to directly support their own priorities.
  • Empowering local communities to close the digital divide requires meaningful policy changes that complement new approaches to federal funding distribution.
  • Localities cannot afford to wait.

A common thread is the emphasis on local control of funds and broadband plans.

EVENT TODAY (Mar 10) Dakota Broadband Board hosts LTD Broadband

I’m thankful to Dakota County for mentioning their meeting this afternoon with LTD Broadband…

The Dakota Broadband Board will have a representative from LTD Broadband speaking at their 4pm meeting this afternoon about their plans in MN. Here is the Zoom link:  to the public meeting:
Join Zoom Meeting https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88574743336?pwd=enlQZFRkTmUrZjdxL3NCTzdidk1Ldz09

Meeting ID: 885 7474 3336 Passcode: 103141

Otter Tail County hires broadband advocate

Perham Focus reports

At their March 9 meeting, Otter Tail County commissioners agreed to pay $30,000 for a two-year position to focus on expanding broadband access.

It’s through an organization called Lead for Minnesota, which seeks to supply leaders age 21 to 30 to help rural communities with a variety of issues. In this case, the issue is broadband access, with Land O’ Lakes sharing the cost to place four of these leaders, called fellows, throughout Minnesota.

“Certainly broadband has been a topic for many years at the county,” said Community Development Director Amy Baldwin. “It piqued our interest.”

Having someone in that role would help Otter Tail County best leverage state and federal funding, which is becoming increasingly available, she said.

If you’re in the area and looking for a position you might be interested…

Lead for Minnesota will hire the person to fill that spot, and they will work in Otter Tail County for two years beginning in August. Baldwin said the county already has the funds to pay for the position.

EVENT Mar 10: Blandin Lunch Bunch Infrastructure: Benefits of publicly-owned broadband networks

Just reminding folks of the Blandin Lunch Bunch on March 10 at noon. (Free but registration required.) Here’s what host Bill Coleman said about the event in the last eNews…

The 1996 Telecom Act was supposed to spur competition, but we are going backwards. In many communities, from affluent suburbs to small rural communities, residents are effectively subject to the services, pricing and responsiveness of an unregulated monopoly provider.  Community leaders need to decide whether this is that a good thing.

The costs to build a fiber infrastructure in a community are low for a 30-year asset.  Community broadband advocates should analyze the multiple options for creating community-owned networks and promote them to elected officials.  Locally-owned networks serve the community as their first priority.

We are going to talk public ownership models at our Blandin Lunch Bunch on March 10 at noon.  Sign up here: https://blandinfoundation.org/programs/broadband/blandin-community-broadband-program-webinar-series/ .  We will discuss at least a couple models.  Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance will join the conversation.

Ammon ID (https://www.ammonfiber.com) is building and maintaining its own fiber network where residents now have their choice of Gigabit providers for $49.50 per month.  Chattanooga TN (https://epb.com/home-store/internet) offers a Gb for $68 per month and solved its pandemic-magnified digital divide issue by simply providing free 100 Mb Internet to 28,000 students.  A new study documented a $2.69 billion long-term benefit from Chattanooga’s fiber network.

We will also talk about the mixed experience of Minnesota’s publicly owned broadband networks (wonders and warts!), including Southwest MN Broadband, the Cities of Windom and Monticello and Scott and Lake Counties.  And, maybe a bit on how new and expanded cooperatives might accomplish the same goals.  Join us!

Christopher Ali outlines broadband options for rural areas

Benton recently posted a column from Christopher Ali about the importance of cooperatives. He promotes cooperatives as broadband providers because they are local and they have infrastructure. He also quotes Bernadine…

Long story short, and to use a quote from Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, “everything is better with better broadband.”

 

But perhaps even more valuable is a succinct description of different types of broadband…

With wires, DSL, or digital subscriber line, is the most deployed broadband access technology in rural America. DSL connections are the copper wires owned and operated by telephone companies like CenturyLink. Despite its prevalence, the problem is that these types of connections are slow and outdated, oftentimes not able to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. More than this, DSL gets worse the further you are away from the network node. So once you’re about 3 miles from the access point, your internet is going to slow down considerably. AT&T and other providers have also begun phasing out their DSL networks, leaving many in rural America without an alternative.

Cable internet, or coaxial, or coax-hybrid internet is the most deployed type of connectivity in urban areas. These connections are owned and operated by cable companies like Comcast Xfinity. The benefit of cable internet is that you get blazing fast download speeds, which is great for binging Netflix. The problem is that the upload speed, which is so important for business and for video conferencing like we’re doing, is slower. More than this, cable internet suffers from something called “network congestion” – the more people on the network at the same time, the slower it becomes. Here in Charlottesville, my husband and I have Comcast, and we have definitely noticed slower service during peak working hours when everyone in our neighborhood is trying to make a Zoom call. It can make teaching really difficult!

Then there’s fiber optics, the “future-proof” and “gold standard” technology. It offers blazing-fast download and upload speeds, doesn’t degrade with distance, and is not impacted by how many people are on the network at the same time. The problem? It is expensive: Upwards of $27,000 per mile. And this is where counties and cooperatives and localities tend to struggle – how to raise the money necessary for fiber-to-the-home?

On the wireless side, counties like Culpeper are deploying towers with fiber-optic connections that transmit broadband wirelessly. This is known as “fixed wireless” and is provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers or “WISPs.” Fixed wireless has proven to be an important form of connectivity on its own, and for some counties, a mid-point towards fiber-to-the-home. It’s not as fast as fiber, and certainly comes with drawbacks like suffering from inclement weather and requiring line of sight, but many counties, particularly rural ones, are erecting a series of towers that are connected at the back end with fiber optics so that residents have meaningful connectivity. Fixed wireless is particularly useful for rural communities and agricultural spaces since one tower can cover a rather large distance. Others, however, say that nothing short of fiber for all will suffice. Again, the type of connectivity should be in tune with the community and the community’s needs.

Also on the wireless side is satellite, which many people don’t even consider viable because it is so problematic. Hughes and ViaSat are the two satellite internet providers in the country. Often times when I bring up satellite in rural areas, people roll their eyes at me, because it is expensive, slow, suffers from lag and inclement weather interruptions, and comes with tiny data caps. Still, the FCC considers satellite a viable complement to wireline broadband. It is available to almost everyone in the country, perhaps 99% or so. That said, I know of many residents who have to augment their satellite connections with mobile hotspots to ensure they are always connected, but at tremendous expense – sometimes $300 a month.

Many of you may have also heard about StarLink – Elon Musk’s SpaceX broadband service. StarLink is a type of satellite broadband called LEO or “Low Earth Orbital,” where the satellite sits closer to the Earth than traditional geosynchronous satellites like from Hughes or ViaSat. Theoretically, this proximity allows LEOs to provide faster and stronger service. Trials suggest StarLink is providing faster service, upwards of 100/20 in certain communities, but this pales in comparison to the original hype around LEOs, which promised speeds of gigabits per second. StarLink and others like it are just getting going, and the technology is still unproven at scale. A recent study, for instance, suggested that StarLink will reach capacity in only 8 short years. There’s still so much we don’t know about these networks. Despite this, the FCC recently awarded StarLink almost $900 million in funding. StarLink’s competitors are challenging this award, claiming that it overexaggerated its capabilities to the FCC.

We could say the same thing about 5G. While urban areas are getting a taste of what 5G can do – like blazing-fast mobile connections and the potential to replace your home broadband network – it is still in its trial stages and the type of 5G found in urban areas, known as millimeter-wave 5G or high-band 5G, is unavailable to the rest of the country. So far, 5G has not lived up to the hype mobile providers like Verizon and T-Mobile have promised us.

I get worried when I hear counties say that they are considering pausing their broadband plans in hopes that StarLink or 5G will arrive soon. Truth be told, these technologies are years away from being deployed in rural areas across our country. There is also uncertainty around cost, in addition to time. Communities that decide to pause will be waiting for something that may never come. In contrast, there are very real solutions available to counties today.