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.

What does the MN Charter VoIP decision have in common with state net neutrality? A move to federal policies

Clayton Caller recently ran an article that outlines how “Ajit Pai helped Charter kill consumer-protection rules in Minnesota” and what impact that might have on state’s voice with Net Neutrality. It’s one of those times when I wish I were a teacher again and I could stand in front of the class and say – I think this one is going to be on the test. The details are wonky but understanding what’s going on is important.

Here’s the gist of the Charter case from the article…

The new court ruling found that Minnesota‘s state government cannot regulate VoIP phone services offered by Charter and other cable companies because VoIP is an “information service” under federal law. Pai argues that the case is consistent with the FCC‘s attempt to preempt state-level net neutrality rules, in which the commission reclassified broadband as a Title I information service instead of a Title II telecommunications service.

The ruling was by the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, following a lawsuit filed by Charter Communications against the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC). A three-judge panel ruled against Minnesota in a 2-1 vote—the FCC had  supporting Charter‘s position in the case.

“[F]ederal law for decades has recognized that states may not regulate information services,” in response to the ruling. “The 8th Circuit‘s decision is important for reaffirming that well-established principle: ‘[A]ny state regulation of an information service conflicts with the federal policy of non-regulation‘ and is therefore preempted.”

I’ve posted about the Charter case before but I think what’s important here is bumping authority from the state to federal level…

Pai said the ruling “is wholly consistent with the approach the FCC has taken under Democratic and Republican Administrations over the last two decades, including in last year‘s Restoring Internet Freedom order,” which repealed net neutrality rules and reclassified broadband. While and other states are imposing net neutrality rules, the FCC says the reclassification should preempt any such attempts at regulating broadband at the state level.

Despite Pai‘s contention, a lawyer involved in the net neutrality case against the FCC told Ars that the 8th Circuit ruling “has no bearing” on the net neutrality case.

Last week, Representative Stephenson introduced HF 136, a state version of a Net Neutrality bill. Proponents talked about the public’s support for the idea of Net Neutrality. Opponents talks about the Net Neutrality as a federal issue, not state issue. Couple that with the fact that at the federal level there is a push for a rural broadband office within the FCC. It seems like a wave is building to move broadband policy to a federal level. What will that mean for funding, for mapping, for broadband availability, affordability and use?

Proposal for a rural broadband office at the FCC

 

StateScoop reports…

Four U.S. senators introduced legislation this week that would create a dedicated office for rural-broadband expansion inside the Federal Communications Commission. The bill arrives as the FCC plans to revise its national map of high-speed internet coverage and as multiple states have created their own broadband offices.

The bill, text of which has not yet been released, is sponsored by Republicans Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and John Hoeven of South Dakota and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Here are some of the details…

If enacted, the legislation would order the FCC to create an Office of Rural Broadband. That new agency would coordinate with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service and the Universal Service Administrative Company — an FCC-backed nonprofit that distributes broadband funds to underfunded areas — to maintain information on federal rural broadband programs.

At least 20 states have created their own dedicated broadband offices, as bringing high-speed internet access to rural areas remains one of the most popular objectives of elected leaders across the country. Wyden’s home state of Oregon added an office to run statewide broadband policy last December when Gov. Kate Brown proposed the creation of a four- or five-person office plus $5 million in rural broadband expansion projects. Neighboring Washington is also opening an office of its own, along with up to $25 million in bonds and grants to expand internet access in its underserved rural areas.

The broadband office bill was also introduced a bit more than two months after the FCC decommissioned its National Broadband Map, which relied on information the commission called “dated.” That map, first published in 2011, was based on a data set last published in 2014, the FCC said when it shut down both the map and its application program interface. The FCC now uses a Fixed Broadband Deployment map, which was first published in February 2018.

The Minnesota Office for Broadband Development has been instrumental in the success of broadband expansion in the state. It seems like there’s the same opportunity for a national office, especially if they are as good as the staff we have in Minnesota.

 

CenturyLink Misses FCC Connect America Fund Milestones in Minnesota

The Benton Foundation reports…

Earlier this month, CenturyLink and Frontier updated the Federal Communications Commission on the companies’ progress deploying broadband service using support from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. In 2015, both CenturyLink and Frontier accepted Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II support to deploy broadband service. CenturyLink was to deploy service to over one million locations in 33 states; Frontier to over 774,000 locations in twenty-nine states. But the funds came with obligations to hit deployment milestones. CenturyLink now says it reached December 2018 in twenty-three states, but has not reached the deployment milestone in 11 states: Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. Frontier met the milestone in 27 states, but hasn’t met the CAF Phase II sixty percent interim deployment milestone in Nebraska and New Mexico.

The obligation is to serve a certain number of locations broadband at the speed of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up by a certain date.

And here’s what the letter from CenturyLink to the FCC says…

In August 2015, CenturyLink accepted Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II support to deploy broadband service to over one million locations in thirty-three states. Using that support, CenturyLink has now enabled broadband service at speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps or higher to over 700,000 locations in CAF II census blocks in those states. This constitutes more than sixty percent of the company’s national CAF II commitment. On a state-by-state basis, CenturyLink’s current year-end data reflect that it met or exceeded the program’s December 31, 2018 interim broadband deployment milestone in twenty-three states.

At this point, however, the data also reflect that CenturyLink may not have reached the deployment milestone in some states. Thus, in accord with 47 C.F.R. § 54.320(d),1 CenturyLink provides this notice that, based on preliminary year-end data, it may not have met the CAF Phase II sixty-percent interim deployment milestone in eleven states. Those states are Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

CenturyLink continues its process to review, validate and confirm the data. By March 1, we will provide the vetted requisite information to the HUBB portal in accord with 47 C.F.R. § 54.316.

CenturyLink continues to deploy broadband to CAF II locations under the program, anticipates reaching the sixty-percent milestone in all thirty-three states soon, and remains committed to meeting its CAF II obligations. In accord with section 54.320(d), CenturyLink is also providing this notice to the Universal Service Administrative Company and to state commissions and relevant Tribal Governments in the impacted states. Please contact the undersigned with any questions regarding this notice.