The power of state broadband grants to match fed is building networks for the future

Doug Dawson (Pots and Pans) is a smart guy. Yesterday he wrote about the FCC’s latest brand of rural broadband grants (RDOF) and a clause that seems to disqualify recipients that receive other state or federal funding. That means (and Doug points out below) that communities that have received MN Broadband grants would not qualify…

It’s important to remember that the RDOF grants are aimed at the most remote customers in the country – customers that, by definition, will require the largest investment per customer to bring broadband. This is due almost entirely due to the lower household densities in the RDOF grant areas. Costs can be driven up also by local conditions like rocky soil or rough terrain. Federal funding that provides enough money to build broadband in the plains states is likely not going to be enough to induce somebody to build in the remote parts of Appalachia where the RDOF grants are most needed.

State grant programs often also have other agendas. For example, the Border-to-Border grants in Minnesota won’t fund broadband projects that can’t achieve at least 100 Mbps download speeds. This was a deliberate decision so that government funding wouldn’t be wasted to build broadband infrastructure that will be too slow and obsolete soon after it’s constructed. By contrast, the FCC RDOF program is allowing applicants proposing speeds as slow as 25 Mbps. It’s not hard to argue that speed is already obsolete.

I know ISPs that were already hoping for a combination of federal and state grants to build rural infrastructure. If the FCC kills matching grants, then they will be killing the plans for such ISPs that wanted to use the grants to build fiber networks – a permanent broadband solution. Even with both state and federal grants, these ISPs were planning to take on a huge debt burden to make it work.

If the matching grants are killed, I have no doubt that the RDOF money will still be awarded to somebody. However, instead of going to a rural telco or electric coop that wants to build fiber, the grants will go to the big incumbent telephone companies to waste money by pretending to goose rural DSL up to 25 Mbps. Even worse, much of the funding might go to the satellite companies that offer nothing new and a product that people hate. I hate to engage in conspiracy theories, but one of the few justifications I can see for killing matching grants is to make it easier for the big incumbent telcos to win, and waste, another round of federal grant funding.

Minnesota has had great success encouraging larger providers to use their federal funding (CAF 2) to build to higher speeds in communities such as Sunrise Township. CenturyLink is the provider there. The community, federal and state grants have built a better network with CenturyLink.

The recipe of state and federal funds worked well in Sunrise and Fish Lake Townships. While on the other hand, both CenturyLink and Frontier have reported that they “may not have met” statewide benchmarks set up for their CAF 2 funding.

Maybe the FCC should check out the Minnesota model. It seems that having the state support, which in itself requires more local support, is an asset to making it happen and happen as Doug notes above – so that government funding wouldn’t be wasted to build broadband infrastructure that will be too slow and obsolete soon after it’s constructed.

Broadband Providers missing CAF Milestones in Minnesota

The Benton Institute reports on CenturyLink…

CenturyLink provided the Federal Communications Commission notice that its current year-end data shows it met or exceeded the Connect America Fund Phase II program’s interim broadband deployment milestone in ten states, but, based on preliminary year-end data, it may not have met the CAF Phase II 80 percent interim deployment milestone in 23 states. Additional information coming by March 1, 2020.

And they report on Frontier…

Frontier provided the Federal Communications Commission notice that, based on its current year-end data, it met or exceeded the FCC Connect America Fund Phase II program’s December 31, 2019 interim broadband deployment milestone in 16 states, but, based on preliminary year-end data, it may not have reached the CAF Phase II 80 percent interim deployment milestone in 13 states. More information by March 1, 2020.

And looking at the original CenturyLink and Frontier letters to the FCC Minnesota is on the list of states where they “may not have met” the milestones.

Minnesota has 134,000 locations eligible for FCC Phase I Rural Digital Opportunity Fund funding

The FCC reports on how many locations (homes and businesses) are eligible for Phase I funding later this year. There are 134,000 locations in Minnesota that are eligible. More info from FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced initial estimates of how many homes and businesses in each state could benefit from Phase I of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In total, about 6 million rural homes and businesses could be eligible for bidding in an auction slated for later this year to receive funding for high-speed broadband. This state-by-state list is for Phase I funding, which would target a total of $16 billion to census blocks with no broadband service at all meeting the Commission’s minimum speed standards. The remainder of the funding would be disbursed during Phase II. As recently announced, the FCC will vote January 30 on launching the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“The digital divide affects many people in many rural communities. I’ve said that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would be our boldest step yet to bridge this divide, and today we get a glimpse of the broad impact this investment in rural America would have across the country,” said Chairman Pai. “Our staff’s initial estimate shows that in 25 states there would be more than 100,000 locations that would be eligible for Phase I of the Fund, and the benefits would be felt from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is critical to bridging the digital divide. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voting for it on January 30.”

MN’s Teddy Bekele named chair of FCC precision ag task force

The FCC announces

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai today announced the membership and first meeting date of the new task force assigned to explore ways to enhance the productivity and efficiency of the nation’s farms and ranches through broadband-based technologies—a concept known as “precision agriculture.”

Planned in close consultation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first meeting of the Task Force for Reviewing Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture is set for Monday, December 9, at 9:30 a.m. in the Commission Meeting Room at FCC Headquarters.  Chairman Pai has designated Teddy Bekele, Land O’Lakes Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, to serve as Chair of the Task Force, and Catherine Moyer, Pioneer Communications Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, to serve as Vice Chair.

A full list of Task Force members appointed by the Chairman in consultation with the Department of Agriculture is available at DA-19-1187A1.pdf.

Last month, Teddy Bekele was named chair of the Minnesota Broadband Task Force. It seems like wearing those two hats is a great benefit to Minnesota.

FCC calibrates testing for CAF-supported Carrier networks

The FCC reports

The Federal Communications Commission today approved performance testing procedures for carriers receiving Connect America Fund support to deploy fixed broadband networks to unserved Americans living in rural areas, helping to ensure that rural Americans have access to the same high-quality networks as Americans in urban areas.

Here are the specifics…

In response to Petitions for Reconsideration and Applications for Review of an earlier bureaulevel Performance Measure Order, the FCC today maintained the existing requirement that carriers conduct quarterly speed and latency tests between specified numbers of active subscribers’ homes and the Internet, and made targeted modifications to the testing procedures, including:

· Modifying the schedule for commencing testing by basing it on the deployment obligations specific to each Connect America Fund support mechanism;

· Implementing a new pre-testing period that will allow carriers to become familiar with testing procedures without facing a loss of support for failure to meet the requirements;

· Allowing greater flexibility to carriers in identifying which customer locations should be tested and selecting the endpoints for testing broadband connections

Minnesota and Blandin Foundation get nice nod from Christopher Ali as broadband instigators

Telecometitor has a nice feature on Professor Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia. He researches broadband policy noting…

In comparing what he hears today with what people have told the FCC and USDA in the past, Ali said, “the conversation hasn’t changed at all.”

We still hear that rural areas need broadband and people are “frustrated” because “large telecom is gobbling up the subsidies,” he said.

He also mentions Minnesota and the Blandin Foundation…

Ali singled out several success stories he encountered in his research, including a couple from Minnesota, where the Blandin Foundation has played a key role in spurring rural broadband deployment. In Rock County, Minnesota the community managed to build a fiber-to-the-home network to reach nearly 100% of the 10,000 people in the area. The modern infrastructure helped attract a shrimp company that wanted to set up operations there and although the company ultimately opted against that, the reason was unrelated to broadband but instead related to other Minnesota regulations.

Another success story comes from Winthrop County, Minnesota, where RS Fiber Cooperative built a broadband network that attracted a satellite medical college that required high-speed connectivity, Ali noted.

Also Minnesota gets a nod for our speed goals…

Asked about what the broadband speed target should be, Ali said “100/100 would be amazing” and noted that this is the target that the state of Minnesota has used successfully.

The 2026 speed goals are actually 100/20 (100 Mbps down and 20 up) but anyone applying for broadband grants must build networks that are scalable to 100/100.

Latest Primer on Net Neutrality Update

Thanks to the Benton Foundation for creating a Cliff Notes-like cheat sheet on the latest chapter of Net Neutrality; yesterday the US Court of Appeals issued a decision…

We uphold the 2018 Order, with two exceptions. First, the Court concludes that the Federal Communications Commission has not shown legal authority to issue its Preemption Directive, which would have barred states from imposing any rule or requirement that the FCC “repealed or decided to refrain from imposing” in the Order or that is “more stringent” than the Order. 2018 Order ¶ 195. The Court accordingly vacates that portion of the Order. Second, we remand the Order to the agency on three discrete issues: (1) The Order failed to examine the implications of its decisions for public safety; (2) the Order does not sufficiently explain what reclassification will mean for regulation of pole attachments; and (3) the agency did not adequately address Petitioners’ concerns about the effects of broadband reclassification on the Lifeline Program. Despite the Commission’s failure to adequately consider the 2018 Order’s impact on public safety, pole-attachment regulation, and the Lifeline Program and despite our vacatur of the Preemption Directive, we decline to vacate the 2018 Order in its entirety…

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