National Coalition works to expand rural e-connectivity

Posting the press release…

WASHINGTON, D.C. April 18, 2018: A coalition of stakeholders committed to the expansion of broadband services in rural America today launched the first in a series of workshops to focus attention on the wide-ranging challenges to achieving connectivity, and the opportunities improved e-connectivity could bring to the people and economies of the nation’s rural regions.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai joined executives from the five partner organizations 

–Farm Foundation, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), CoBank, and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC)–in kicking off the listening sessions by highlighting the importance of e-connectivity to all sectors of rural America.

The next listening session will be in June 2018 in Minnesota, with additional sessions to be completed over the next six months.

“Broadband is vital to the rural economy in what is now a highly interconnected global marketplace,” said Tom Halverson, President and CEO of CoBank. “We need leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington to work together to facilitate broadband investment and ensure that rural America remains competitive and strong.”

Achieving e-connectivity across rural America is not a simple task. “Actions needed to improve e-connectivity vary widely by community and region,” notes Farm Foundation President and CEO Constance Cullman. “These listening sessions will serve to highlight common issues, success stories to build strong broadband systems, and challenges that are yet to be met.”

Executives from regional telecommunications companies participated in the kickoff to provide perspectives on the broadband service issues. This panel included Levoy Knowles of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, Mel Coleman of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, and Ken Johnson, Administrator of Rural Development’s Rural Utilities Service.

“We are excited for the prospects of enhanced cooperation and coordination between USDA, the FCC, and private operators like those in NTCA’s membership–all of whom recognize the value of and critical need for sustainable broadband in rural America. In that spirit, it is an honor to have both USDA Secretary Perdue and FCC Chairman Pai offer remarks at today’s kickoff event,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “NTCA’s nearly 850 members connect many of America’s rural communities to the world with robust broadband, and we are pleased to participate in this collaborative effort to promote better access to rural broadband.”

Rural electric cooperatives are well aware of the needs of e-connectivity in their communities, and more than 100 electric cooperatives already are providing broadband service to their members. “The widening digital divide is a national crisis deserving of a national response,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of NRECA. “For decades, electric cooperatives have enhanced the quality of life throughout rural America. Now, many of those same electric co-ops are helping reinvigorate rural economies by bringing broadband to rural homes, businesses and farms. High costs to serve areas with low population density remain the biggest obstacle to expanded rural broadband access. An expanded combination of federal grant and loan funding through USDA is a critical step to connecting rural America.”

Stakeholders emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance broadband services in rural America. “Leveraging additional investment in rural broadband infrastructure will require a team effort,” said Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC. “Local partnerships can be a wonderful way to leverage resources, expertise and efficiencies to ensure that rural communities can fully participate in today’s 21st century economy.”

How much of the US has access to broadband? Depends on your definition of broadband

The Daily Yonder recently ran an interesting article by Brian Whitacre, Roberto Gallardo, Angel Siefer and Bill Callahan om their look at the FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report.

The report shows an increase to access to broadband in the US from 89.4 percent in 2014 to 95 percent in 2016. It seems like a great leap and it is – but it’s not causing the celebrations one might expect and that’s because the FCC is including satellite in their definition of broadband. In fact the FCC reports that 2016 marked the first instance where 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps satellite service was reported in the Form 477 data use to compile their maps…

This is a significant increase from the 89.4 percent reported to have broadband availability in 2014 and the 81.2 percent reported in 2012. However, digging a bit deeper into this increase demonstrates a little-known fact about how the FCC defines “fixed” broadband and how the implications associated with that definition have changed. 

To the layman, the idea of a “fixed” broadband connection would likely be a traditional, wired line run directly to a business or residence. However, the FCC has historically defined some technologies as “fixed” that might surprise some people. These include fixed wireless connections, or wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), that are basically individual towers that provide line-of-sight service to customers. Additionally, the FCC includes satellite connections as “fixed” broadband. Each of these technologies (WISPssatellite) has been pushed as important for rural broadband. (The rationale behind this definition is that the consumer receives these technologies from a fixed point, as opposed to mobile technologies where the consumer may be in motion).

The implications in this change are big…

When all is said and done, we estimate that about 10.5 million were covered by 25/3 speeds thanks to satellite as of 2016. In other words, the number of Americans WITHOUT access to 25/3 speeds would nearly double if satellite technology was removed (from the 14 million claimed in the FCC’s report, to over 25 million). 75% of this population is classified as rural by the FCC.

The authors have some concerns…

While any technology with potential to deliver broadband is welcome, there are numerous concerns about classifying satellite as broadband. Satellite technology is highly susceptible to weather disruption; data latency is an issue; and data caps / cost are also concerning. In fact, one of the minimum requirements for providers seeking Connect America Funding (an FCC program to expand broadband services in unavailable areas) is that their latency cannot be higher than 100 millisecond per round trip – a threshold that excludes satellite providers.  Some individual states, however, are embracing satellite providers with their own broadband funding.    

The little known fact that the FCC includes satellite as part of its “fixed” broadband analysis raises questions about the adequacy of the FCC’s definitions and standards. Accurate data of existing broadband infrastructure is essential to local, state and national planning and public policy decisions. Issues of latency, pricing, data caps, and even length of contract are important elements of broadband that should be identified and defined in any publicly available broadband datasets.  

Daily Yonder editorial questions FCC funding recipients and lifts up cooperatives

The Daily Yonder recently ran an editorial from Matthew Marcus from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. The article questions the FCC’s decision to “throw billions of dollars to the companies that have most resisted investing in rural areas”…

North Dakota is a leader in next-generation fiber-optic networks. Parts of Eastern Washington have more choices for broadband than any major city does. And among the mountains of central Missouri, cooperatives are providing far superior Internet access than is available in Jefferson City.

What do these disparate projects have in common? They are rural regions with some of the best Internet access in the country. But their lessons have been drowned out by lobbying from the big telephone companies that have ensured they get billions of federal dollars to deliver obsolete services to rural America.

The Connect America Fund is the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) effort to connect the unconnected, mostly by throwing billions of dollars to the companies that have most resisted investing in rural areas.

The article reminds us of the different standards when it comes to defining broadband…

The Connect America Fund program requires internet service providers to deploy broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. That’s gravely slower than the standard FCC-defined benchmark speed of 25/3 Mbps.

The article lifts up the work of cooperatives in getting better broadband to rural areas…

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, and Senator George Norris have done more to expand high quality internet access in America than any modern Congress or president despite all being dead for more than 60 years. They built the rural co-ops that continue to invest in their communities.

These cooperatives are in rural areas for a reason — elected leaders recognized nearly 100 years ago that the private sector would not build essential infrastructure in rural areas and it would be wasteful to throw federal dollars at them. Instead, they created locally accountable organizations to build and maintain the electric grid and later telephone lines at high-quality and affordable rates.

Looking at the 2017 Minnesota map of areas with access to broadband at speeds of 100/20 we can see some standout areas in rural Minnesota and most are served by cooperatives. Paul Bunyan serves the area in Northwest Minnesota around Bemidji, Garden Valley serves the area just west of there. West Central Telephone served the area east of there. Lake County Connections serves the area in Northeast, Acira Farmers Mutual Federated Telephone serves the counties west of the Twin Cities and Alliance Cooperative serves Rock County in the Southwest. I may have missed some and there are some areas not served with cooperatives but on the whole the map backs up the Daily Yonder’s assertion that cooperatives are serving rural areas. (You can let me know below if I missed someone!)

Applications Now Being Accepted for $2 Billion Rural Broadband Auction

From the FCC press release

APPLICATIONS NOW BEING ACCEPTED FOR $2 BILLION RURAL BROADBAND AUCTION Application Window Closes on March 30 —

WASHINGTON, March 19, 2018—The Federal Communications Commission is now accepting applications from broadband providers of all kinds to participate in this summer’s Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction. Providers must submit their applications by March 30, when the application window closes.

Providers can apply here: auctions.fcc.gov. The auction will make available up to $1.98 billion in support over the next decade to help build out high-speed Internet access to up to 1 million homes and small businesses in rural areas across the country that lack service.

“This is a unique opportunity for broadband providers to expand their service,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “More important, this is a unique opportunity to bring digital opportunity to parts of rural America that have been bypassed by the broadband revolution. So I hope that all eligible providers will give this opportunity a hard look and choose to participate.”

The auction will provide opportunities for new and existing providers using a variety of technologies to compete for support, including phone companies, fixed wireless providers, satellite providers, cable companies, and rural electric utilities. The auction is scheduled to begin on July 24.

FCC unveils updated broadband map – does it reflect reality in your zip code?

Borrowing from the Benton headlines – here’s the info on FCC’s latest national broadband map

As it works to close the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission has updated and modernized its National Broadband Map so the map can once again be a key source of broadband deployment information for consumers, policymakers, researchers, and others. The new, cloud-based map will support more frequent data updates and display improvements at a far lower cost than the original mapping platform, which had not been updated in years. Improvements and features in the successor National Broadband Map include:

  • Fixed deployment data based on the latest collection by the FCC and updated twice annually

  • Deployment summaries available for seven different geographical types: nation, state, county, congressional district, city or town (census place), Tribal area, and Core -based

  • Statistical Area (such as New York-Newark-Jersey City NY-NJ-PA)

  • Broadband availability and provider counts in each of the nation’s over 11 million census blocks, available for six technologies (fiber, DSL, cable, satellite, fixed wireless, and other) as well as seven speeds, for a total of 441 combinations

  • Provider summary information available for 1,782 providers by technology, eight download speed tiers, and nine upload speed tiers

  • Deployment comparisons between geographic areas

  • A portal for data downloads

  • Satellite imagery map overlay that shows buildings, roads, and geography

  • Graphs that show what fraction of an area’s population has access to broadband at a given speed

You can use the maps to track access to a specific address or by community – county, state, zip code, tribal area, congressional district or MSA. Rumor has it that FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is encouraging people to send corrections/suggestions to broadbandfail@fcc.gov. SO check it out – see if what you find on the maps for your community meets what you know to be true. If not, report it. These maps are used to make decisions. It’s worth making sure they are as accurate as possible.

Pole attachments – the devil is in the details for broadband policy

There are a lot of moving pieces to broadband policy. The biggest for deployment is funding. The biggest for adoption/access is Net Neutrality. And inherent in those biggies is a lot of details – such as how do you define broadband? But dive in deeper there are a host of other wonkier topics that can be just as important – such as pole attachments.

Pole attachments is one topic on the agenda for the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. A committee that (according to Axios) San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo resigned from alleging that the committee is dealing internet service providers “a very favorable hand” of policy recommendations.

Light Reading reports on the committee’s discussion on pole attachments…

The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) — which is charged with laying out recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for driving broadband expansion in the US — found itself facing a fundamental divide. Some members of the committee want rules that give communications service providers greater access to poles and other structures in the public right-of-way by guaranteeing local permit approvals and capping fees.

Others believe local officials have the right to determine rules of access based on the public interest. Specifically, they think that local governments have the right to negotiate with service providers to ensure that broadband buildouts reach all communities, thereby helping to close the digital divide.

The fault lines in the debate are clear. Industry folks want unfettered access, arguing that next-generation broadband services require it. Cities, and in some cases states, want service providers to recognize that there are other factors to consider, i.e. that it takes resources for local governments to oversee permitting, and that unregulated deployments without regard for the needs of an entire community are not in the interest of the citizens who collectively own the public assets in question. (See Broadband Fee Fight Gets Messy at the FCC.)

It’s wonky but important because it balances the need for better broadband in many communities with the management of public property. It’s similar to cable franchising and other rights-of-way issues. The discussion of selling off national parks garners more attention but management of more localized public space is important too. There’s a solution but the right decision requires having a strong balance of views in the room to come up with it.

FCC proposes $500 million increase for Rural Broadband

According to Telecompetitor

FCC rural broadband funding could increase by over $500 million if the commission votes to adopt an order circulated by commission chairman Ajit Pai. According to an FCC spokesman, the funding would include about $180 million for the current funding year for the nation’s smaller rate-of-return (ROR) carriers who get their support through traditional legacy mechanisms and up to $360 million over the next 10 years to ROR carriers who receive support based on the A-CAM cost model.

In a statement Pai said he had heard “from community leaders, Congress and carriers that insufficient, unpredictable funding” has kept them from deploying broadband more extensively to close the digital divide. The funding, he said, will “boost broadband deployment in rural America and put our high-cost system on a more efficient path, helping to ensure that every American can benefit from the digital revolution.”

The $500 million would come, in part, from reserves, the spokesman said. In addition, the order seeks comment on the Universal Service Fund (USF) budget, he noted.

More funding is always good news. I would just like to see a current definition of broadband. I know this time last year (Jan 24, 2017), the FCC announced 182 rate of return companies that elected to received A-CAM support. Below is a chart of Minnesota companies in that list and their obligation to provide service as specified speeds. You’ll see not all of the speeds mentioned would meet the Minnesota speed goals for 2022 (25/3) and none of them meet the speed goals for 2026 (100/20).

(I know that table won’t translate well online – you can also download it in Word.)

State (RoR) Holding Company Annual ACAM Support Locations in Census Blocks Receiving Model-Based Funding Locations with Obligation at 25/3 Mbps Locations with Obligation at 10/1 Mbps Locations with Obligation at 4/1 Mbps Locations Remaining on Reasonable Request Standard
MN  ARVG  Arvig Enterprises, Inc.           21,559,568                    33,455                      20,993                        6,998                        2,732                        2,732
 MN  CHRS  Christensen Communications Company                536,263                        420                            83                            28                          154                          155
 MN  HNSN  Hanson Communications, Inc.             2,572,081                      2,466                       1,179                          393                          447                          447
 MN  INTR4  Interstate Telecommunications Cooperative, Inc.                994,999                        779                          155                          156                          117                          351
 MN  LRSN  Larson Utilities, Inc.             1,423,622                      1,160                          243                          244                          168                          505
 MN  MBLC  Mabel Cooperative Telephone Company                633,384                        518                          186                            63                          134                          135
 MN  NRTH8  Northern Telephone Company/Wilderness Valley Telephone Company                330,942                        231                            33                          101                            24                            73
 MN  NWLM  New Ulm Telecom, Inc.             6,118,567                      7,913                       3,414                        1,138                        1,680                        1,681
 MN  PRKR  Park Region Mutual Telephone Company             3,092,315                      4,351                       2,735                          912                          352                          352
 MN  RRLC  Rural Communications Holding Corporation             4,433,893                      6,035                       2,784                          928                        1,161                        1,162
 MN  RTHS  Rothsay Telephone Co. Inc.                448,181                        335                            24                            73                            59                          179
 MN  TDS  Telephone and Data Systems, Inc.             5,099,964                    10,788                       7,362                        2,454                          486                          486
 MN  VNCE  VNC Enterprises, LLC                274,969                        302                            36                          108                            39                          119
 MN  WKST  Wikstrom Telephone Company, Inc.             6,782,806                      6,587                          997                        2,992                          649                        1,949

I’ve abbreviated heading row above from : “Number of Locations in Eligible Census Blocks with Obligation to Offer” to “Locations with Obligation at”