Tag: "federal"

Posted April 3, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Like most other aspects of life, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted the federal government’s plans to disburse grants, loans, and subsidies for the construction of rural broadband networks. But unlike the sporting events and concerts that can be put on an indefinite hold, these funds are now needed more than ever by the Internet access providers trying to connect rural households during a time when everything has moved online. Federal agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), must find ways to manage the challenges caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus and to leverage their funds to support essential networks for families stuck at home.

These agencies’ main rural broadband programs — the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and USDA’s ReConnect — are at different stages, both in their funding cycles and in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has already led to changes at the USDA, which has extended the ReConnect application deadline and is set to receive additional funds from Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC has yet to alter the upcoming RDOF subsidy auction, but it could speed up the process to address the current crisis, which threatens to linger through the summer.

While more must be done to address the many digital divides exacerbated by the pandemic, federal agencies should at least use existing programs to their full advantage to connect rural Americans during this unprecedented time.

ReConnect Extends and Expands

USDA logo

USDA launched the ReConnect broadband program last year to award more than $1 billion in grants and loans to connect unserved and underserved rural areas. In round one of the program, the agency distributed more than $600 million to 70 providers across 31 states. Many of these awards went to community-owned networks, including rural cooperatives and local...

Read more
Posted March 9, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

In two letters sent at the end of February, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reconsider certain aspects of the agency’s ReConnect broadband grant and loan program. The senators’ letters, addressed to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, called on the agency to address, “administrative hurdles and eligibility problems within the ReConnect Program that have put critical broadband infrastructure assistance out of reach for Oregonians and communities across America.”

The USDA, which is currently accepting applications for the second round of ReConnect funding, has awarded more than $600 million in grants and loans since launching the program in 2019.

“A High-stakes Gamble”

Merkley and Wyden’s first letter [pdf], joined by Oregon Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader, raised lingering problems with the USDA’s determination of eligible areas and the application process for the program.

The letter reads:

We heard several concerns from our constituents in Oregon that the initial design of the ReConnect Program limited accessibility for local Internet service providers (ISPs) due to both administrative issues and eligibility restrictions. While changes have been made to improve the program, we continue to hear from many Oregonians that several major issues unfortunately remain.

In particular, the Oregon officials identified as barriers the complicated and costly application process as well as an inaccurate and unclear designation of underserved areas. “Many local ISPs feel as if [applying] is more akin to a high-stakes gamble rather than soliciting funding for a fiber-to-the-premises project,” they explained.

Additionally, the lawmakers noted that the ReConnect program’s scoring criteria can prioritize less rural, non-tribal areas, writing, “If this grant focuses on bringing broadband to rural and unserved America, the evaluation criteria seem to contradict the program’s mission.”

Satellite Subsidies Limit Opportunity...

Read more
Posted February 6, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act, fixing a tax law change that threatened to raise rates and delay the expansion of broadband for rural cooperative members across the country.

Passage of the RURAL Act ensures that cooperatives can accept federal funds for broadband deployment, disaster relief, and other efforts without risking their nonprofit tax exempt status. A change in the 2017 tax law would have labeled these funds as revenue for the first time, potentially causing co-ops to exceed the allowable percentage of non-member income they must maintain to remain tax exempt.

After Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Rob Portman(R-Ohio) and Representatives Adrian Smith (R-) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) introduced the bipartisan bill in April, it attracted 55 additional cosponsors in the Senate and more than 300 in the House. It was eventually incorporated into the consolidated appropriations act and signed into law in December.

“Obstacles From the Federal Government”

We described the possible impact of the 2017 tax law change on rural cooperatives over a year ago, when Senator Smith first brought the issue to our attention.

Failure to remedy it would have forced some co-ops to choose between continuing with desperately needed broadband and disaster recovery projects and increasing their members’ rates. Northwestern Electric Cooperative CEO Tyson Littau described the difficulty of that decision to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA):

Do we rebuild and try to strengthen our distribution system and pay the taxes, or do we delay the mitigation project that would improve 1,200 miles of line throughout our territory? I think we have a responsibility to the membership to improve the system for the future.

Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative was another co-op faced with the prospect of raising electric rates to...

Read more
Posted January 30, 2020 by Lisa Gonzalez

As federal, state, and local leaders increasingly recognize the need to make Internet access universal, they are also realizing that adoption is a separate issue. Programs such as the ReConnect and Connect America Funds I and II Auction have helped to expand infrastructure, but even in places where Internet access has been available for years, 100 percent of households do not subscribe. In an effort to better understand digital equity, the House Subcommittee on Communications & Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce recently sat down to listen to experts on digital equity. They discussed common misconceptions, hurdles that make wide-scale adoption difficult, and offered policy recommendations to help us achieve digital equity.

Not Only a Rural Problem

Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) described how her experience as a digital equity warrior has changed from working with people to learn the basics of computer use to the additional problem of helping people get online. Angela's statement addressed some of the most common myths associated with the digital divide that NDIA, through boots-on-the-ground research, has discovered, including:

The digital divide is a rural problem: Census results show that populations in urban areas do not have Internet access subscriptions of any kind; these are often low-income households.

5G will bridge the digital divide: Lack of infrastructure and devices deployed in areas where existing problems with digital inclusion continue with regards to this new technology.

People don't subscribe because they don't think the Internet isn't valuable: Accomplishing day-to-day tasks often require access to the Internet, which is a fact not lost on those who don't subscribe, but the cost is out of reach for many of those same people.

Read Angela's statement here...

Read more
Posted January 2, 2020 by Lisa Gonzalez

We're starting off the new year with episode four of the new podcast project we're working on with nonprofit NC Broadband Matters. The organization focuses on finding ways to bringing ubiquitous broadband coverage to local communities to residents and businesses in North Carolina. The podcast series, titled "Why NC Broadband Matters," explores broadband and related issues in North Carolina.

As we look forward to a new year, we're also looking back with this week's guest, Jane Smith Patterson, a Partner with Broadband Catalysts. Jane has a deep love for North Carolina and a deep interest in science and technology. Throughout her life, she has put those two interests together to help North Carolinians advance human and civil rights, education and learning, and to advance the presence of high speed connectivity across the state. 

logo-nc-hearts-gigabit.pngJane's decades of experience at the federal, state, and local levels make her the go-to person to provide content for this episode, "North Carolina's unique broadband history and lessons for moving forward." She and Christopher discuss how the state has become a leader in science and technology, including the state's restrictive law limiting local authority. Lastly, Jane makes recommendations for ways to bring high-quality Internet access to the rural areas where people are still struggling to connect. The conversation offers insight into North Carolina's triumphs and challenges in the effort to lift up its citizens.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please ...

Read more
Posted August 28, 2019 by Hannah Trostle

In July, the Community Affairs Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City released Disconnected: Seven Lessons on Fixing the Digital Divide, a report that touches on Internet access, adoption, and affordability. Overall, this is an insightful primer on the digital divide and how banks can help. 

The CRA and the Digital Divide

Banks have a responsibility to invest in disadvantaged communities under the Community Reinvestment Act. The report broadly outlines the state of high-speed Internet access, including the differences between rural and urban access problems, and explains why the digital divide remains so persistent.

Part of the problem is that our data on Internet access and adoption is woefully lacking. The report includes a section on how FCC data overstates coverage and compares it to the ways Microsoft has attempted to verify actual home Internet connections: 

“The FCC’s data measure availability of broadband while the Microsoft data measure broadband usage. The company shared its analysis with the FCC, which is looking at how it might improve its broadband measurements. While the FCC says 24.7 million Americans lack access to broadband, Microsoft found the actual number was 162.8 million.” (P. 26)

Another related problem that the report identifies is that the technology needed for high-speed Internet access seems to be constantly changing. Companies do not continue to invest consistently in rural or low- and middle- income communities, leaving both with last-generation networks. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we've learned from years of research that fiber connectivity has the ability to meet current and future needs.

Closing the Digital Divide

Expanding high-speed Internet access can expand access to banking. The report notes that:

“Among low-income households, research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City shows that lacking Internet access has a higher correlation to being unbanked than a variety of other characteristics, including employment status and race.” (P. 11) 

Supporting community networks is one way banks can improve high-speed Internet access, and our research appears throughout the report. One of the example explained...

Read more
Posted August 9, 2019 by Lisa Gonzalez

Earlier this week, Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren released her Plan to Invest in Rural America, which contained a framework for improving broadband policy and expanding high-quality Internet access.

You can read her full plan on Medium.

Funding Needed, Spent Wisely

Some of Warren’s goals for proposed policy changes include:

  • Passing federal statute that ensures municipalities have the right to invest in network infrastructure
  • Ending anti-competitive behavior from big corporate Internet access companies that engage in activity designed to reduce competition
  • Pass a Digital Equity Act, which will provide $2.5 billion over 10 years to states in order to help them develop digital inclusion projects

Warren’s plan also focuses on financing infrastructure development in rural areas, and creates some guidelines to address the problems with the current system. Her plan includes:

  • Dedicating $85 billion to expand broadband networks with grant funds awarded exclusively to cooperatives, non-profit organizations, tribes, and local government
  • Funding will be reserved for regions that are unserved, underserved, or where there is minimal competition
  • Grants will only go to projects that offer one discount plan and must include a 100 Mbps symmetrical tier, along with specific requirements for low-income subscribers
  • $5 billion will be earmarked for grants to projects that will benefit people on tribal Native American lands

Improving the FCC

Warren also wants FCC Commissioners who will restore network neutrality protections and improve mapping. By making changes in the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, Warren plans to further attack the digital divide for indigenous people.

Read more of Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Invest in Rural America at Medium.

Posted May 7, 2019 by Lisa Gonzalez

The Austin, Texas, 2019 Broadband Communities Summit was about a month ago, but we’re still enjoying the experience by sharing Christopher’s onsite podcast interviews. This week, he and University of Virginia Assistant Professor Christopher Ali have an insightful conversation about rural broadband, media, and the Internet — and we get to listen in.

Dr. Ali works in the University Department of Media Studies and has recently published a piece in the New York Times titled, “We Need A National Rural Broadband Plan.” In the interview, he and Christopher discuss the op-ed along with Dr. Ali’s suggestions for ways to improve federal involvement in expanding rural connectivity. In addition to structural issues of federal agencies that affect the efficiency of rural expansion, Dr. Ali discusses the advantages he sees from a single-entity approach.

The two also get into a range of other topics, such as the importance of broadband to help deliver a range of media, especially in rural areas where local media outlets are disappearing.

Read Dr. Ali's op-ed here and order his book, Media Localism: The Politics of Place from the University of illinois Press to learn more.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on...

Read more
Posted May 3, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.

Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.

Addressing Legal Ambiguity

As we explained last year, a tax policy change included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act carelessly put rural co-ops at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they accepted government funding for broadband projects or disaster relief, among other things. Traditionally, these government grants were excluded from the requirement that electric and telephone cooperatives obtain at least 85 percent of their income from members (often referred to as the member income test) to maintain their tax exemption. The 2017 law threatened this precedent by changing the tax code so that “any contribution by any governmental entity or civic group” is now included in a corporation’s gross income. This has made some co-ops hesitant to apply for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Pilot Program for fear of jeopardizing their...

Read more
Posted February 12, 2019 by Lisa Gonzalez

Harvard Professor, author, and broadband champion Susan Crawford has been incredibly busy ever since she released her latest book Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — And Why America Might Miss It. Fortunately for us and our listeners, she hasn’t been too busy to take some time for Community Broadband Bits listeners. She’s here this week to talk about the book, her experiences researching it, and discussing policy recommendations aimed at bringing better connectivity to rural and urban areas.

The conversation between Christopher and Susan is one of our best podcasts. They touch on technology, competition, and how we’ve come to the point when local communities are leading the charge to bring high-quality Internet access to their residents and businesses. Susan shares some of the stories she encountered — both favorable and not so favorable — of places where local leaders are either working to hard to put broadband infrastructure in place or barely moving the dial on getting their communities better connected. 

She’s travelled all across the world to learn about how other countries approach fiber connectivity and how they’re reaping the benefits. Now, she wants to share some of those policies and ideas to help Americans realize that if we don’t adjust our mindset, we could miss out on fiber’s potential.

Order Susan's book online at Indiebound.org. Learn more about the book by reading Christopher's review.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

... Read more

Pages

Subscribe to federal