Why doesn’t the REA (rural electrification administration) model work for broadband today?

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard in 100 times – broadband expansion is the rural electrification challenge of our generation. We need an effort like the REA! Despite what my kids may think, I wasn’t around for the rural electrification effort. So while I’ve always understood the analogy, I didn’t over think it. It didn’t occur to me to ask – why doesn’t the REA model work today?

I’m glad that Steve Conn from In These Times looked at the issue…

Rural America faced an almost identical problem three-quarters of a century ago. At the start of the 1930s, only 10 percent of rural Americans had electricity in their homes and on their farms, making life needlessly difficult. In response, Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1936. Through it, federal loans were offered to rural electrical cooperatives. The co-ops were able to set up the necessary transmission lines and used their numbers to negotiate wholesale purchase agreements to buy the power.

We are seeing cooperatives starting to invest in broadband in rural areas. But expansion and upgrades are not happening as they did with the REA. Conn does asks the hard question: Why not…

Everyone knows about the high-speed internet deficit, so why hasn’t anything like a TVA for the internet been created? One answer is that Congress has been controlled by politicians who have vilified all government programs and who do not want to create new ones.

The bigger problem is that the very people who would benefit from rural broadband keep voting for those same politicians and things are even worse at the state level. Dozens of rural communities have tried to set up internet co-ops, on the model of the REA, but in response nearly two dozen states have passed laws making it nearly impossible to do so. Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, for example, have prohibited any municipal internet provider from selling the service directly to customers.

Most of these states are controlled by the same kind of anti-government legislators who run Congress and all of them have been lobbied heavily by the same telecom companies that have abandoned rural internet users. But as long as rural Americans keep sending those politicians to Washington, or to the statehouse, rural America is going to remain stuck in the dial-up age.

It’s worth thinking about. Broadband is like apple pie – no one is against it. But can we make it a priority worth investment? Can we have the patience to see expected return on investment? Research shows it will pay off:

Think about what the US would be like if the REA didn’t happen? Can we be forward thinking enough to take on the challenge for our future selves and future generations?

MN Broadband Task Force: Fixed wireless, satellite, CAF and MN grant challenge process

Today the Minnesota Broadband Task Force met; the topics of the day were fixed wireless and satellite. It was interesting to hear from the various vendors. In short they got an update on what’s going on with fixed wireless and then a demo of satellite. (There was public feedback in the form of letters that came in from rural satellite users.)

I think most folks in the room would agree that this is the B-side of broadband. (There might not be agreement on whether they will stay on the B-side.) These are the folks that are interested in serving rural areas and/or in playing the role of competitor to an incumbent provider. We heard dismay at how CAF money is being spent on expanding slower connections – rather than upgrading services. The presenters attract customers who have slow connections and whose providers have said they have no plans to upgrade. They see the frustration and are able to capitalize on it by offering service that they say is better.

One red flag was a discussion on the CBRS (citizen band radio spectrum) and fear that the government may sell that public property to the highest bidder. A bidder that may choose to not use the spectrum. The problem is that can keep the competition away – leaving community members with limited choice for broadband.

Folks were also talking about the grant challenge process for the MN broadband funds in light of what’s happening in Kandiyohi County. (I will try to get more details on what’s going on there.) The issue is that a grant applicant must inform an incumbent (or nearby) provider if they intend to seek funds to upgrade service. Then the incumbent/nearby provider has a chance to challenge. One issue is that even if they don’t challenge – they know competition is coming, which means they can make just enough changes to make it difficult for the newcomer to the area. (Discussion at 3:30 in video below.)

Lots of interesting discussion….

 Here are more detailed notes… Continue reading

Broadband grants are catalyst for broadband in remote areas of Minnesota

The FedGazette has taken a deeper drive into broadband access in Minnesota. They recognize that it’s difficult to make a business case to service rural areas…

Such speeds often require an optical fiber connection, but it’s difficult for telecom firms to justify laying expensive fiber infrastructure in sparsely populated places. “There are areas where you just can’t make a business case to provide broadband,” said Brent Christensen, CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, a trade association.

And they recognize the need for government support…

Over the past two decades federal, state and local governments have intervened in telecom markets to bring high-speed internet service to unserved or underserved areas.

More than any other district state, Minnesota has striven to extend the reach of broadband. The Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, administered by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), has dispensed $65 million to internet providers over the past three years to support broadband projects across the state. By subsidizing the upfront cost of broadband infrastructure in areas still off the broadband map, the grants have helped to make high-speed internet service available to nearly 26,000 households and more than 3,100 businesses around the state.

But despite coverage gains under the program, a yawning urban-rural broadband gap remains. And this spring the Minnesota Legislature cut the Border-to-Border program by over 40 percent, allocating $20 million for the next round of grants (applications are due in September) and nothing for next year.

The cuts represent another swing of the pendulum in a national debate about the role of government in fostering broadband development. Are taxpayer-funded grants, loans and other subsidies the best way to ensure that rural residents aren’t bypassed by the information superhighway?

The Border-to-Border program is a case study of what can be accomplished with a modicum of state funding—and the challenges of overcoming long-standing barriers to broadband deployment in rural areas.

And detail the impact of state…

The Border-to-Border program has proved a catalyst for rolling out broadband in remote areas of Minnesota by covering part of the upfront cost and thus reducing the price paid by subscribers. Often a state grant is the capstone of a financing package drawn from multiple sources, public and private—the final piece that elevates a rural project from pipe dream to reality.

Without such support the price of broadband service in many rural areas would be “exponentially higher,” said Gary Johnson, CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications, a telecom cooperative in northern Minnesota.

MN Broadband Task Force Meeting – Aug 16 in St Paul

I plan to be there. I plan to take notes and record/livestream technology and broadband permitting…

Governor’s Broadband Task Force
August 16, 2017
Minnesota Senate Office Building –Room 2308
95 University Avenue West
St. Paul, MN 55155

10:00 a.m. – 1:45 p.m.

  • 10:00 a.m. –10:10 a.m. Introductions, Approval of Minutes, Public Comment
  • 10:10 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Office of Broadband Development Update
  • 10:15 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. Fixed Wireless Panel
    • Tim Johnson, MVTV Wireless
    • Paul Hess, Advantenon
    • Dave Giles, Invisimax
    • Steve Schneider, Bug Tussel Wireless
  • 11:45 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  Lunch (Governor’s Dining Room–basement of the Capitol on tunnel level)
  • 12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Satellite Demonstration
    • Megan Kueck, Manager, State and Local Affairs, Satellite Communications and Broadcasting Association
  • 1:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. Wrap-Up, Discussion of September Meeting, Adjourn
  • 1:45 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Subcommittee Work Time

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin says People are talking about broadband

The Grand Forks Herald reports…

The leader of Minnesota’s Democrats said Friday he and supporters are optimistic they can rebuild the party despite large losses in the 2016 election.

“Oftentimes after a tough election losses, people are sort of hanging their heads and wondering what is next and waiting for the next election,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said during a visit to the Herald. “What I’ve found as I travel the state is so much energy. People are not waiting for the next election. They are already out there talking to voters. They are already out there fighting. To me, that is a sign of good things to come.”

In a tour of cities, Martin stopped Thursday in East Grand Forks to speak with local political supporters. Topics ranged from proposed cuts to crop insurance by the Trump Administration to trade deals and border issues to access to broadband.

Minnesotans are still interested in broadband, because it’s still an issue in rural area. Politicians are hearing that from the front-lines.

Mobile broadband is good enough for rural areas?!

Ars Technica reports…

Americans might not need a fast home Internet connection, the Federal Communications Commission suggests in a new document. Instead, mobile Internet via a smartphone might be all people need.

The suggestion comes in the FCC’s annual inquiry into broadband availability. Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to determine whether broadband (or more formally, “advanced telecommunications capability”) is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If the FCC finds that broadband isn’t being deployed quickly enough to everyone, it is required by law to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

Sounds like an easier answer than making sure broadband is being deployed quickly – it is move the goalpost – closer and lower…

But with Republican Ajit Pai now in charge, the FCC seems poised to change that policy by declaring that mobile broadband with speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream is all one needs. In doing so, the FCC could conclude that broadband is already being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and thus the commission could take fewer steps to promote deployment and competition.

This would also be the first time that the FCC has set a broadband speed standard for mobile; at 10Mbps/1Mbps, it would be less than half as fast as the FCC’s home broadband speed standard of 25Mbps/3Mbps.

Nothing is set in stone, yet, you can chime in!

The changes were signaled yesterday in a Notice of Inquiry, the FCC’s first step toward completing a new analysis of broadband deployment. The document asks the public for comments on a variety of questions, including whether mobile broadband can substitute for fixed Internet connections. You can file comments at this link; initial comments are due September 7, and reply comments are due September 22.

Representative Daniels notes that technology-friendly policy is important to MN economic development

Owatonna’s People’s Press recent ran an letter to the editor from Rep Daniels. (Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, is the state representative for District 24B, which includes Medford, Ellendale and much of rural Steele County.) He noted legislation related to broadband…

Technology is evolving every day and it is important that we, as a state, stay ahead of the curve. In order for Minnesota to remain competitive so employers to want to build, expand, and invest in our state, we need to ensure our technological infrastructure is strong. This session, legislation was passed limiting the amount a municipality can charge to “rent” space on public infrastructure for small-cell technology. Small-cell technology uses nodes that are attached to streetlights, utility poles, and other public structures in areas where there is high demand for cellular data. With more people using mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, for work and leisure, small-cell technology will help offset the capacity limits of cell towers. This technology has been expanding out of Minneapolis and St. Paul and into the suburbs, and hopefully, into Greater Minnesota as demand continues to increase. Currently, cellular communication companies are working to debut 5G technology, which is 100x faster than the current 4G service and will be compatible with this small-cell technology. This session, we also provided $20 million in grant funding to bring increased broadband internet access to residents throughout Greater Minnesota. Increased access to faster broadband and the introduction of small-cell technology will only mean good things for the future of Minnesota.