Maine broadband authority redefines statewide broadband as symmetrical 100/100 Mbps connection
California Legislature and Governor reach $5.25 billion agreement on statewide middle-mile network
New Hampshire matching grant initiative aiming to promote partnerships signed by Governor
The State Scene
The Maine Senate recently enrolled a bill (L.D. 1432) amending the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund to only allow communities, municipalities, and regional utilities access to grants through the program. The bill became law without State Governor Janet Mills’ signature on June 24.
The legislation removes limits placed on the number of grants able to be awarded per project, but limits the amount of funds that may be distributed per project to 50 percent of total costs. The bill, aiming to support the deployment of municipal gigabit fiber optic networks, also requires the ConnectMaine (ConnectME) Authority to establish minimum upload and download speed definitions to foster widespread availability of symmetric high-speed Internet access, beginning in 2025.
Members of the ConnectME Authority are one step ahead of state legislators. During a June virtual emergency meeting, the ConnectME Authority voted (5 yes-1 abstention) to set the statewide definition of what constitutes “broadband” as a symmetrical 100/100 megabit per second (Mbps) Internet connection. The public board also moved (5 yes-1 no) to redesignate what “underserved” means, defining it as areas which lack access to Internet connections at 50/10 Mbps.
Before settling on a speed threshold to describe underserved, there was discussion among members over whether the definition should be changed to 50/20 Mbps, rather than 50/10 Mbps, in order to account for modern upload requirements. The majority of ConnectME members were in agreement that 10 Mbps upload capabilities are not adequate post-pandemic; however, altering the 50/10 Mbps designation, which the board’s research was based on, would have required opening a 30-day comment period, potentially delaying the grant distribution process by a few months. ConnectME members opted not to delay grant distributions, but said they would consider raising the speed metric in the future. See public comments and a transcript of the ConnectME June meeting here [pdf].
Over a week after the beginning of Fiscal Year 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Senate and General Assembly legislators have finally reached an agreement on how to spend state budget surplus dollars and American Rescue Plan funds to expand Internet access. The $5.25 billion agreement, which calls for constructing a statewide open-access middle-mile network, will be codified in a trailer bill (S.B. 156) to the state budget. On Thursday, the budget trailer bill passed the General Assembly by a unanimous vote of 78-0, before passing the State Senate by a vote of 39-0.
According to Gov. Newsom’s press release, the legislation calls for:
Creating a ‘broadband czar’ and nine-member council within the California Department of Technology.
Hiring a third-party to build and maintain the ‘middle-mile network’ – high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks.
Investing $3.25 billion to target that middle mile and build the broadband lines.
Providing $2 billion for ‘last-mile’ infrastructure lines that will connect consumers’ homes and businesses with local networks ($1 billion for rural communities; $1 billion for urban communities).
With Democrats in control of both the state’s executive and legislative branches, it seems reaching an agreement on how to allocate money (with spending deadlines attached) would be relatively simple. Yet, when State Gov. Newsom initially budgeted $7 billion for broadband expansion in May, with $4 billion earmarked for constructing public open-access middle-mile infrastructure, and with $500 million reserved for a financing program to assist local governments, Tribes, and nonprofits in financing new municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, the California State Legislature, rather than acting, effectively sidelined the proposal.
“Although the Governor delivered a detailed budget and roadmap, and the enacting legislation has been drafted, and although the need is urgent, the Assembly Budget Committee, chaired by Phil Ting, now says that it wants more time to think it over,” reported 48hills in early June.
Opposition from AT&T and the cable industry reaching the ears of state legislators hindered and stalled Gov. Newsom’s plan. Letters from AT&T sent to the State Legislature attempted to deter Gov. Newsom's proposed spending plan by stressing that the middle-mile network will not connect users in the last-mile. In the letter, AT&T suggests that instead of funding the middle-mile network, state legislators should instead allocate $6 billion to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF).
Of the program, EFF's Ernesto Falcon says: "CASF has spent an obscene amount of public money on obsolete slow connections that were worthless during the pandemic due to legislative restrictions the industry sought. Its current rules also make large swathes of rural California ineligible for broadband investments, and it prioritizes private industry investments by blocking most local government bidders. It is no surprise cable suggests we spend another ∼$7 billion on that failed experiment."
The California Legislature is influenced by some of the largest telecom and cable monopolies. In 2019 and 2020 alone, AT&T gave $755,000 to the California Democratic Party.
The legislation creates the New Hampshire Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI), a body charged with overseeing the disposition of federal funds the state is set to receive for broadband. Under the legislation, towns, political subdivisions, communications districts and private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are eligible to apply for funds to cover 50 percent of the estimated buildout costs for proposed broadband projects.
The program aims to direct funds to unserved areas of New Hampshire, and defines eligible projects as those serving areas which lack access to broadband from at least one provider or “areas served by providers at a lower speed.” The legislation specifies that any broadband providers awarded a grant must consult with local governing bodies to ensure the funds advance the goal of deploying broadband to unserved areas within communities.
The legislation has tossed a wrench into the plans of towns across New Hampshire which were planning to bond with the New Hampshire Municipal Bond Bank (NHMBB) this year for the entire cost of projects. Towns hoping to access federal funds are now unsure how much they need to bond for, in comparison to how much they might receive in grants from OSI.
The NHMBB, which sells its bonds in January and July each year, provided guidance to towns who have received approval to have their bonds sold by NHMBB. According to Tim Wessels, a member of New Hampshire’s Rindge Teltech Committee, the Municipal Bond Banks guidance is: 1) towns should apply for the full amount they need in the July bond sale, assuming they will not receive a grant from OSI, 2) towns should apply for half the amount needed in the July bond sale and see if OSI awards a grant, or 3) towns should postpone participation in the July bond sale until January and use a Bond Anticipation Note (BAN) to begin network construction this fall in a public-private partnership. This will allow towns to see if they receive a grant from OSI and bond accordingly in January.
The Broadband Deployment Act (H.B. 1239) went into effect in the state of Florida on July 1. The bill establishes additional duties for Florida’s Office of Broadband, creates a state broadband grant program, and requires the office to conduct mapping of unserved and underserved areas of the state - a significant deviation from the version of the bill that was first introduced in February.
Before the bill was significantly redrafted to become a legislative package aimed at improving broadband deployment across the state, H.B. 1239 originally included provisions that would have forced Florida’s municipal electric utilities and their ratepayers to pay private ISPs’ utility pole make-ready costs.
The final version of H.B. 1239, instead, contains language that Florida Municipal Electric Association’s (FMEA) grassroots lobbying team worked with the Speaker of the House and Senate President to get included.
Under the negotiated language, Florida’s 33 electric utilities must “offer an incentive rate of $1 per attachment (far below actual costs) to any broadband provider that will bring high-speed Internet services to any unserved or underserved” community served by public power, according to a FMEA press release. The final language also prohibits municipal electric utilities from raising attachment fees charged to ISPs under existing contracts for one year. The bill was further rewritten to preserve existing contracts and maintain local safety requirements.
The Rhode Island House recently passed legislation (H.B. 5148) aiming to establish an 11-member state broadband council and a broadband coordinator position within the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Yet, the bill was not acted on by the Rhode Island Senate before the state’s legislative session ended on June 30.
Rhode Island and Mississippi are currently the only states without a broadband coordinator, reports WUN. State legislators see establishing the position as critical to the state aggressively seeking out funding opportunities to boost the expansion of high-speed Internet.
The Pennsylvania House recently advanced legislation (S.B. 442) that would “require the state Department of General Services to conduct an inventory of all state-owned properties for the use of deploying high-speed [I]nternet. Counties also would be encouraged to conduct their own inventories, but the bill does not mandate it,” reports the Pennsylvania Business Report.