FCC says A-CAM funding expected to bring 25/3 Mbps broadband to 11,000 homes

The Brainerd Dispatch reports on impact of FCC funding (A-CAM) on Minnesota…

“Today’s announcement means that many more rural Americans will have access to high-speed broadband service that will enable them to fully participate in the digital economy—entrepreneurship, telemedicine, precision agriculture, online education, and more,” stated FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a news release Monday, April 29. “This is yet another example of how the FCC is working hard to close the digital divide.”

Pursuant to new rules adopted by the commission last December, a total of 186 companies participating in the FCC’s Alternative Connect America Cost Model program accepted $65.7 million in additional annual support over the next decade. In return, these carriers have committed to deploying 25/3 megabits per second service, relating to internet speed, to 106,365 homes and small businesses that would have otherwise only received slower 10/1 Mbps service.

The boost represents a 31.8% increase in the number of locations that will have faster service available through the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program. Carriers must deploy 25/3 Mbps service to 40% of locations by the end of 2022, and increase deployment by 10% annually until buildout is complete at the end of 2028.

In Minnesota, the additional funding is expected to increase the number of homes receiving 25/3 Mbps service by more than 11,000 homes, or 26.3 percent.

A Better Wireless has a Solution for Rural MN – but they need access to spectrum

The Benton Foundation has posted a column from Mitchell Koep, CEO of A Better Wireless, about the need in rural areas (specifically rural Minnesota) for better broadband to create a level playing field for students…

I know firsthand what it’s like living on the wrong side of the digital divide because my local community in rural Minnesota has been experiencing it for far too long. That is one of the reasons why I founded A Better Wireless, a wireless ISP that is seeking to connect rural Minnesotans who lack affordable broadband access.

The most upsetting part about the digital divide is the lack of access our students face. As more teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection, students without home access are at a severe disadvantage. My granddaughter and her third-grade classmates are living in this divide known as the “Homework Gap.” At Battle Lake Independent School District in Otter Tail County, Minnesota – where my granddaughter attends school – 23 percent of all families with an enrolled student lack broadband access. This Homework Gap not only impacts families from participating in digital life but also severely inhibits students from accessing the same educational opportunities that benefit their urban peers.

Koep offers a solution with wireless…

Last year, Otter Tail County approached commercial providers asking to help solve our digital divide. Incumbent telephone companies told the county it would take $49 million to expand fiber along roadways in just the southern third of the county. This plan would require rural residents to pay to bury fiber from the road down their driveways—some of which are half a mile long or longer.

A Better Wireless submitted a proposal to connect these same households with fixed wireless for a fraction of that cost. For just $8.6 million, we would upgrade capacity for county schools — which currently pay $2,300 per month for 200 Mbps service — to gigabit access for just $750-$1000 per month. For students who ride the bus up to an hour one way to and from school—a journey that takes even longer when we receive 30 inches of snow—we plan to equip school buses with internet access to turn travel time into homework time. And families with enrolled students that qualify for free and reduced lunch plans would get 25/10 Mbps service for just $15/month.

Our plan also includes offering fixed wireless broadband access to every resident in the county for just $45 per month. In addition, we will offer our public safety officials access to a mobile, public safety network.

But they need access to spectrum to make it happen,,,

But our plan hinges on the Federal Communications Commission making currently unused Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum available to educational entities. While EBS has been licensed in roughly half of the United States, geography covering 85 percent of Americans, the remaining half covering roughly 50 million Americans has never been licensed. The FCC has now proposed to finish licensing this spectrum — which has essentially been frozen since 1995 — to local educational entities. A Better Wireless has already developed partnerships with schools interested in applying for licenses if the spectrum is made available. We have also joined an advocacy group with 70 other companies and educational entities called Educators and Broadband Providers for American Rural Communities (EBPARC) to help make this proposal a reality. I recently traveled to Washington (DC) to tell the FCC and Congress about the critical need for smaller operators like mine to access this key spectrum band.

The biggest threat to our plan is that large, national, wireless providers are urging the FCC to sell these licenses to them instead of continuing to license to educational entities. Rural schools like those in Otter Tail County will not be able to compete in a spectrum auction against large telecommunications companies—the same companies that have been ignoring our community for far too long. Even if resources were available, schools in some states are not legally allowed to spend resources on spectrum.

FCC talking about spending caps on Universal Service Funds?!

Apparently FCC Chair Pai is talking about spending caps on Universal Service Funds.

Here is Benton Foundation’s response

The Benton Foundation unequivocally opposes any proposals from the Federal Communications Commission that would allow the FCC to shirk its responsibilities to meet its Congressionally-mandated mission. The FCC is supposed to ensure:

  • Quality services are available at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.

  • Access to advanced telecommunications and information services are provided in all regions of the Nation.

  • Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, have access to telecommunications and information services, including interexchange services and advanced telecommunications and information services, that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.

  • There are specific, predictable, and sufficient Federal and State mechanisms to preserve and advance universal service.

  • Elementary and secondary schools and classrooms, health care providers, and libraries should have access to advanced telecommunications services.

And according to Politico, here’s the response from other FCC Commissioners…

FCC SUBSIDY CAP PUSHBACK — Count FCC Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as critics of a proposal from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to explore a spending cap on telecom subsidies to expand broadband access. “Any effort that could harm classroom learning, broadband deployment, rural health opportunities, or connecting more individuals should be shelved and never considered again,” Markey said of the FCC proposal, which would target Universal Service Fund programs.

— Rosenworcel said the item, which was circulated among commissioners Tuesday, “flies in the face of the agency’s own rhetoric about bridging the digital divide.” The measure seeks comment on what the cap should be, including whether it should be set at $11.4 billion, the sum of all USF program budgets in 2018. (Actual disbursements from the fund were about $9.6 billion that year.) Still, the idea has strong support from Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who voted to approve it Tuesday, calling an overall spending cap “overdue and incredibly needed.”

I’ve been looking for the circulated proposal, but as often the case that doesn’t seem to be available. There’s nothing on the Universal Service Headlines. Maybe we’ll see more later – maybe readers will help me out!

Klobuchar introduces improving broadband act

The Brainerd Dispatch reports…

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Joe Manchin D-W.Va., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced bipartisan legislation to improve the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband coverage maps.

The Improving Broadband Mapping Accuracy Act directs the FCC to initiate rulemaking to consider using consumer-reported data and state and local data from government entities to improve broadband mapping accuracy, while also considering ways that both fixed and mobile coverage data can be challenged if telecommunications are not upholding their services as advertised. The bill would seek to help close the digital divide by giving policymakers more accurate data on broadband coverage nationwide.

“In order to deploy broadband nationwide, we need reliable data on where service exists and where it does not,” Klobuchar stated in a news release. “Our bipartisan legislation will help ensure we are closing the digital divide with accurate mapping and bringing high-speed internet to every family, regardless of their ZIP code.”

How much broadband does $100 million of federal funding buy in MN?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Frontier Communications has received over $100 million in federal grants to improve rural broadband in Minnesota over the past four years, yet complaints about its internet service suffuse a state investigation of the company.

Minnesota regulators last year commissioned an inquiry into Frontier after fielding numerous complaints. In January, the Minnesota Department of Commerce issued a report concluding Frontier may have broken at least 35 state laws and failed its customers with shoddy service and inadequate network investment.

The report also questioned how Frontier used the federal grant money. Information submitted to the state by Frontier “has been too minimal” for utility regulators to certify that the grants from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund were used appropriately, the Commerce Department said.

“It is obvious to anyone who bothers to look that Frontier is a terrible investment for the federal government,” said Christopher Mitchell, community broadband director for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Frontier strongly disputes the entire Commerce Department report and expects this week to file a formal response with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The company said in a statement that it is in compliance with all FCC requirements for the Connect America money.

Frontier is not alone is accepting money…

It is one of several large phone companies collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Connect America Fund, and it says it has filed all requisite FCC reports and met all its obligations.

Connect America is aimed at FCC-designated rural areas where broadband is deemed too costly for private investment without public subsidies. The program has been criticized for requirements on broadband speed that use outdated government standards.

In 2015 the fund awarded $9 billion over six years to several large U.S. wireline carriers. Money from the 2015 allotment, dubbed Phase 2, has been used extensively in Minnesota by both Frontier and Monroe, La.-based CenturyLink.

Companies participating in Phase 2 must provide download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. That target was set when the FCC standard for download speeds was 4 Mbps. But by 2015, the FCC had redefined broadband as 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

Essentially, Connect America phase 2 projects were obsolete before they rolled out, Mitchell said. “It’s totally wasteful.”

Bill Coleman, owner of St. Paul-based Community Technology Advisors, said that 10 Mbps service is an improvement for some remote areas. Also, the lower — and therefore less costly — standard allowed the FCC to spread Connect America funding over a larger area, he noted.

“But whether it positions Minnesota or any state for rural economic vitality, I would say no,” said Coleman, who works with small communities on telecommunications issues.

How much federal funding has been spent?

Federal records show that Frontier has already been allotted $109.5 million for Minnesota through 2018. The company completed more Connect America projects by the end of 2017 than it was obligated to finish, records show, and Frontier said that was also true for 2018.

CenturyLink, Minnesota’s largest wireline provider with 430,000 customers, received Phase 2 Connect America funding of $505.7 million annually for six years. For Minnesota, CenturyLink gets $54 million each year. The company says it expects to have completed more than 60,000 Connect America-funded projects by the end of March.

CenturyLink and Frontier, not surprising given their size, have been targets of various grievances to the PUC.

The PUC logged 216 service complaints about CenturyLink from Jan. 1, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2018, said Dan Wolf, the PUC’s executive director, in an e-mail. During the same time, 63 were filed about Frontier.

Is the FCC minimal requirement enough?

Frontier and CenturyLink said they annually report the status of Connect America projects to the FCC. Both companies said that many locations under the program are eligible for download and upload speeds that are faster than 10/1 Mbps.

A report last summer from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation concluded that it is difficult to gauge the effects of Phase 2 Connect America investments in Minnesota. “The lack of transparency and accountability in [the program] has been challenging and frustrating,” the report said.

Connect America-funded networks don’t meet Minnesota’s own definition of broadband, which is the same as the FCC’s current characterization: 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

 

 

FCC pledges more funding for rural broadband deployment

From the FCC

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2019—The Federal Communications Commission today offered an additional $67 million in annual support to certain rural broadband providers that could bring improved service to nearly 110,000 homes and businesses in rural communities
across 43 states. Carriers that accept the offer must expand the availability of broadband service delivering at least 25 Mbps downloads/3 Mbps uploads to their rural customers.

Carriers have 30 days to decide whether to accept the additional funding.
Closing the digital divide is the FCC’s top priority. The Connect America Fund is key to this effort, providing funding in sparsely populated rural areas where the cost of providing and deploying service can be high.
The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau made the offer of additional support to 207 rural rateof-return carriers that receive funding through the Connect America Fund’s Alternative Connect America Cost Model, or A-CAM. In return for this increased funding, the providers
must significantly expand the availability of service delivering at least 25/3 Mbps speeds in locations which otherwise would have received 10/1 Mbps or worse service, thereby better meeting the needs of consumers and businesses in today’s online world.

Interesting to see the push for 25/3 access, which is the MN State speed goal for 2022. The speed goal for 2026 is 100/20.

FCC says the digital divide is narrowing – but is it getting deeper?

According to a press release from the FCC

The Chairman’s draft of the annual FCC report to Congress shows that since last year’s report, the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017.  Moreover, the majority of those gaining access to such high-speed connections, approximately 5.6 million, live in rural America, where broadband deployment has traditionally lagged.

The private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded.  And overall, capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016.

Other key findings of the report include the following, based on data through the end of 2017:

  • The number of Americans with access to 100 Mbps/10Mpbs fixed broadband increased by nearly 20%, from 244.3 million to 290.9 million.

  • The number of Americans with access to 250 Mbps/50 Mbps fixed broadband grew by over 45%, to 205.2 million, and the number of rural Americans with access to such service more than doubled

Based on these and other data, the report concludes that advanced telecommunications services – broadband – is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.   The Commission is expected to vote on the report in the coming weeks.

It strikes me that 19.4 million people don’t have access to 25/3 broadband while 290.9 million have access to 100/10 and 205.2 million have access to 250/50. There may be fewer people on the far end of the digital divide but the chasm between the haves and have-nots is deepening.