Tag: "loan"

Posted May 28, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

Update (6/18/20)

In response to the $1.25 billion Vermont received from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, lawmakers immediately began discussing using $100 million of it to bridge the state's digital divide, with fully $45 million going to construction of new fiber networks across the Green Mountain State. But they were quickly stopped short by restrictions set on the monies, which stipulated the strict terms by which the funds were to be used. In the end, the state won't be seeing any construction from these funds. Instead a smaller amount — $43 million — will be directed at immediate relief efforts rather than long-term planning:

  • "$13 million in proposed spending to connect Vermonters to broadband internet services. The bulk of that, $11 million, would create a program to be managed by the public service department called Get Vermonters Connected Now [to] provide subsidies to low-income Vermonters who can't afford to use broadband networks already available in their neighborhoods."
  • "$20 million to compensate utilities . . . for the cost of continuing to serve people who stopped paying bills due to COVID-19."
  • "$7.3 million for the Agency of Digital Services to make it more secure for state employees to work remotely and to upgrade the obsolete unemployment insurance computer system."
  • "$500,000 for a "telecommunications recovery plan."
  • "$466,500 for local cable access organizations in recognition of the additional coverage they've taken on during the pandemic."

It's possible that federal regulations could change, but in the meantime Vermonters will have to look inward to solve its connectivity challenges.

Original Story

Vermont’s Department of Public Service recently released an Emergency Broadband Action Plan that is among the most aggressive of all state responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The state currently has 944 cases of COVID-19, with 54 attributable deaths. A full third of households with school children lacked...

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Posted April 8, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Last fall, we reported on the large number of community-owned broadband networks among the applicants for the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity.

Since then, the USDA has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers. Almost all grant and loan recipients plan to build high-quality fiber networks with the funds.

While the impact will be limited by the relatively modest size of the program and restrictive eligibility requirements, the ReConnect awards will nevertheless lead to improved economic opportunity and quality of life in rural areas. These investments will enable more rural Americans to take advantage of precision agriculture, online education, and telehealth visits — services that are now more important than ever as the nation finds itself in the grips of a pandemic.

Co-ops, Munis Win Big

Approximately 30 rural telephone and electric cooperatives in 16 different states are taking home ReConnect grants and loans from the first round of funding. Co-op awards include a nearly $19 million grant for Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative, a $28 million grant and loan for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and a $2.73 million grant for Emery Telecom for projects in Colorado and Montana.

USDA logo

Several municipal networks are also recipients of ReConnect funding. One of the awardees, Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa,...

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Posted March 2, 2020 by lgonzalez

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), has been working on their plan to deploy Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) to members and surrounding premises since 2017. The rural cooperative received a financial boost when they recently received a grant and loan award from the USDA's ReConnect Program.

Welcome Funding for Fiber 

With $28 million - part loan and part grant - CVEC plans to fund the first three years of their project. The USDA funding will allow CVEC to connect more than 17,000 households, six health care centers, 15 educational facilities, and 15 other community facilities. When the entire five-year plan is complete, approximately 37,000 premises will have access to FTTH. 

In Buckingham County, CVEC officials announced the award to about 200 people, including local resident Virginia Jackson. She and her family rely on their mobile phones' hotspots for Internet access, which is unreliable and can be expensive. She and her husband were interested in the project and how it would improve connectivity for them and left "excited to see what the project brings to our community."

Early in the planning process, CVEC sought funding from local governments where they plan to deploy infrastructure. They did obtain support, but still sought grants and loans elsewhere to help pay for construction of the project, which they estimated to cost between $110 and $120 million. CVEC has received grants from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), FCC Connect American Fund, Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC), and a loan from the Rural Utility Service (RUS) for smart grid upgrades. 

The project will include deploying approximately 4,000 miles of fiber optic infrastructure and will touch 14 counties. The co-op will deploy in a range of competitive environments. In some areas, locals have only dial-up, whereas in other communities CenturyLink and Comcast already serve subscribers. Even in places where residents already have one or two options, the ability to connect with fiber...

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Posted September 4, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Applicants in the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program requested over $1.4 billion to finance rural broadband expansion, exceeding available funds by more than $800 million. Despite tough competition, much of the funding may go to community broadband networks, since more than half of the applicants are publicly or collectively owned, including electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments, and federally recognized tribes.

As was the case in previous federal programs, most community broadband providers applying for ReConnect funds plan to deploy modern, high-speed fiber networks. Unlike the large telecom monopolies, which are letting their rural networks rot even while raking in government subsidies, community owned networks frequently leverage federal funds to deploy future-proof fiber optics in their rural service areas.

ReConnect Review

In 2018, Congress authorized $600 million for the ReConnect program to expand high-quality connectivity in rural America by providing grants and loans to Internet access providers. The first round of ReConnect applications closed earlier this summer with $200 million available in each of the three funding categories:

  • 100 percent grant
  • 50 percent grant - 50 percent loan
  • 100 percent loan

Earlier this year, Congress approved an additional $550 million for the program, which the USDA will distribute after awarding round one funds.

logo-reconnect-eligible.png Most entities were eligible to apply for ReConnect funds, including for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes. The guidelines for which communities qualified, however, were much more restrictive. Proposed service areas had to be rural, as defined by the USDA, and had to have between 90 and 100 percent of the...

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Posted March 28, 2019 by lgonzalez

Current lawmakers in the Vermont House have rapidly advanced H 513, a bill that addresses both policy and funding hurdles in an attempt to expand broadband throughout the state. After a vote of 139 - 2, the bill went on to the Senate on March 26th.

Looking at Local Models

H 513 recognizes that more than a quarter of the state’s premises don’t have access to broadband speeds as defined by the FCC, 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. The state’s Department of Public Service, which assembled the data, also determines that almost a fifth of premises can’t obtain speeds of 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps. With so many rural communities hurting for access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, state lawmakers are anxious to find tools to expand broadband across Vermont.

Legislators note in the language of H 513 that they believe the FCC’s “light-touch” approach toward expansion of broadband:

“…does little, if anything, to overcome the financial challenges of bringing broadband service to hard-to-reach locations with low population density. However, it may result in degraded broadband quality of service.”


H 513 goes on to acknowledge that grassroots approaches that use local knowledge and support will be the most successful in Vermont.

Lawmakers and their staff have lauded ECFiber as one model that works in a place like Vermont, where many smaller communities can pool their resources and work together to develop a regional network. As the Communications Union District has developed over the years and dealt with funding challenges head-on, it has become apparent that access to capital is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.

Funding for Innovation

seal-vermont.png In order to help local projects, H 513 will establish the Broadband Innovation Grant Program within the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). 

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Posted March 19, 2019 by lgonzalez

Governor Jay Inslee started to promote his bill for better broadband earlier this year and, with any luck, Washington will have a solid foundation to expand broadband before the end of this year’s legislative session. SB 5511, a measure backed by the Governor, has sailed through the Senate, and has now appeared in the House. The bill establishes a State Broadband Office and earmarks funding for local broadband initiatives.

The bill is on the agenda for today's House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee meeting at 10 a.m. PDT.

Difficult But Doable

In order to bring high-quality Internet access to all of Washington, millions and possibly billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are required. No one is certain how much completing the task will cost, and obtaining a better estimate will be one of the tasks of the State Broadband Office (SBO), which will be created by SB 5511. The bill allocates $1.2 million for the SBO.

Rural communities, economic development organizations, and tribes have all supported a measure to establish state investment in broadband infrastructure deployment across Washington. In January, Inslee met with leaders from communities across the state, including Colville Business Council member Susie Allen representing the Colville Tribes, to discuss the need for state funding:

“I have been working on broadband initiatives on our reservation for many years, but unfortunately, substantially, we still remain under-served and unserved, without broadband services,” said Allen. “The Colville Tribes have invested several millions of dollars to begin to meet this need, but we require assistance from the state and federal agencies to complete this work… The lack of broadband service creates not just an inconvenience, but poses real safety concerns throughout the reservation.”

The Colville Tribe has invested $6 million in order to connect the tribal government and under the terms of SB 5511, they would qualify to receive more funding in grants and low-interest loans.

The Tribe...

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Posted January 23, 2019 by lgonzalez

The federal government shutdown continues to drag on, but people heading up rural broadband projects are not waiting until it’s over to investigate federal funding sources. Tools like the ReConnect Opportunity Map from Cooperative Network Services (CNS) will help reduce some of the uncertainty and time required to prepare an application for this and other funding opportunities.

The GIS tool focuses on the ReConnect grant program’s criteria, which will allow users to quickly identify census blocks across the U.S. that are eligible for funding. CNS has also added special color-coding to display density of households and included information about those census blocks to help complete the applications. Examining density of households per road mile allows planners to more quickly prepare an application and establish a cost estimate. The map digs down even further to give information on housing units, which will help with refining deployment costs.

The tool also allows users to define deployment areas on the map and run reports that include census block identifiers, households, and populations per mile. Even if the specific identified area doesn’t qualify for ReConnect funding, the information can be used for other purposes, such as for a potential project that might qualify for other funding or might be of interest to an Internet access provider looking to expand in the area.

Check out this sample screenshot and the explanation below:

CNStool-screengrab_0.png

View a larger version of the screenshot.

This image of an area in Minnesota indicates census blocks that do not currently have broadband speeds over 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. The blocks are color-coded based on the number of housing structures per road mile (darker = more housing units per road mile). Small dark spots are structures. The number of households per road mile shading allows users to quickly identify areas that may make the most sense to target since road miles generally equate to fiber construction corridor miles.

More Than ReConnect

Another feature, the ability to reveal telecom exchange boundaries, can help applicants get a picture of what other ISPs operate in the area. Whether an...

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Posted January 10, 2019 by lgonzalez

Urban areas in North Carolina don’t have the same challenges obtaining high-quality Internet access as rural communities, but telephone and electric co-ops are taking more steps to change that imbalance. Cooperatives are filling gaps and finding opportunities where national ISPs don't see a high enough profit margin. Wilkes Communications/RiverStreet Networks and TriCounty Telephone recently merged to find those gaps and serve North Carolinians left behind.

Acquiring and Expanding 

In September 2018, TriCounty Telephone Membership Corporation merged with Wilkes Telephone Membership, the parent entity of Wilkes Communications and RiverStreet Networks. The cooperative also acquired Peoples Mutual Telephone Company and Peoples Mutual Long Distance Company, which took Wilkes into southern Virginia. 

When they added several other smaller companies, the cooperative continued to implement their strategy to bring broadband to rural communities without limiting themselves to one region. In addition to counties in central North Carolina, the cooperative now serves people along the north border, in a few south central counties, and in three counties far in eastern North Carolina that brush the eastern shore.

President and CEO Eric Cramer told the Journal Patriot in September that, where national ISPs turn away, Wilkes sees opportunity:

“Larger companies have abandoned these areas, so we think there is an advantage to grow there. A number of rural counties are looking to partner with companies like ours to help bring broadband like we’ve done here in Wilkes. .... These buildouts are much harder and take longer to produce results than acquisitions.”

Merging with TriCounty made sense because TriCounty had reached its potential due to size and scale limitations. TriCounty’s Vice President for business development Greg Coltrain recently told WNCT Channel 9 that the cooperative was considering the quickest way to bringing high-quality Internet access to rural North Carolina and achieve long-term success when they chose to merge with Wilkes:

"Our goal and our initiative is to find those areas, come up with an...

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Posted August 30, 2018 by lgonzalez

People and businesses in the small town of Hermann, Missouri, primarily rely on slow DSL for Internet access. There are also a few areas with cable connections available, and even a few parts of town where no ISPs offer service. This month, community leaders took decisive action to bring another option to town — they adopted a resolution to pursue federal funding for a publicly owned fiber optic network.

Let the People Decide

Late last year, Mayor Robert Koerber proposed a spring non-binding referendum to determine how strongly Hermann voters wanted to invest in the project. At the time, the Board of Alderman were considering a bond issue to cover the cost of deployment, which they estimated at $2.6 million. 

Koerber thought that a strong outcome in support of the project would help attract financing when it was time to begin the project. He also considered the issue something voters should weigh in on, due to the bonding question.

The Board of Alderman supported the idea, but other town matters, including finding a new tourism and economic development director, required immediate attention. Town leaders also decided to look for some one who could help educate the community about the pros and cons of the fiber optic project. Rather than move forward with the referendum town leaders decided in January to put off any vote for the time being.

Pursuing Funding

Prior to their mid-August Board meeting, Alderman in Hermann had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the USDA to discuss other funding possibilities. They determined during those conversations that they could apply for funding from the Rural Utilities Service, which us under the purview of the USDA, for loans to deploy the network. Deadline for their loan application is September 30th.

logo-hermann-mo.png When the Board of Alderman got together, they passed a resolution to authorize submission of their loan application. At the time they passed...

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Posted April 27, 2018 by lgonzalez

Nestled along the south eastern border of Maine are Baileyville and Calais. As rural communities situated next to Canada in the state's "Downeast" region, neither town is on a list of infrastructure upgrades from incumbents. With an aging population, a need to consider their economic future, and no hope of help from big national ISPs, Baileyville and Calais are joining forces and developing their own publicly owned broadband utility.

Baileyville and Calais

There are about 3,000 residents in Calais (pronounced "Kal-iss") and 1,500 in Baileyville, but according to Julie Jordan, Director of Downeast Economic Development Corporation (DEDC), many of those residents are aging and younger people find little reason to stay or relocate in Washington County. The community recognizes that they need to draw in new industries and jobs that will attract young families to keep the towns from fading off the map.

Most of the residents in the region must rely on slow DSL from Consolidated Communications (formerly FairPoint), while a few have access to cable from Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable); expensive and unreliable satellite is also an option and there's some limited fixed wireless coverage in the area. A few larger businesses that require fiber optic connectivity can find a way to have it installed, but Julie tells us that it's incredibly expensive in the area and most can't afford the high rates for fiber.

Economic Development Driven

logo-baileyville-me.png Organized in 2015, the nonprofit DEDC came together with the focus on recruiting new businesses to the area and to support existing businesses. As DEDC quickly discovered, unless the region could offer high-speed, reliable Internet infrastructure, attracting new businesses and helping existing businesses expand would be extremely difficult. They also determined that new families would not be interested in Baileyville or Calais without high-quality connectivity. "It was a no-brainer," says Julie, "you have to go fiber."

One of the largest regional employers, Woodland Pulp, need fiber in order to operate and as Julie describes, "they pay up the nose" for connectivity. All their equipment is computerized and they...

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