$14.9 million in broadband grants in Tennessee's fourth round of the program include telephone and electric cooperatives which will help extend service to 7,120 unserved homes and businesses. These include the Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative, the Volunteer Energy Cooperative, and others bringing fiber service to unconnected locations.
A host of cities and counties in Arkansas are about to get a major broadband boost thanks to local officials taking steps to act on a grant program deployed by the state last year. Borne out of the state’s 2020 1st Extraordinary Session at the end of March 2020 in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, the new Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grant Program will disburse $2 million in funds divided into 30 one-time grants of $75,000 each to towns, cities, and counties to tackle the digital divide in the Toothpick State. The program is financed via Arkansas’ Restricted Reserve Fund with money given to the state by the CARES Act, and is administered by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. And while an array of projects have been awarded funds, money remains available and applications are being accepted on a rolling basis for those who have yet to take advantage.
A Win for Local Self-Reliance and Increasing Competition
The program is expressly designed to bridge the gap for communities that want to begin to improve local Internet access but are stymied by a necessary first step: paying for those economic, design, and feasibility analyses which require pulling together the wide range of options available in the context of local conditions. That’s where this program comes in, according to Rachel Ott, the UAMS Institute’s for Digital Health and Innovation Grant Director. Communities can use the work produced to apply for federal grants down the road, including the recently concluded Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, funds from the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, and any other forthcoming federal funding programs.
Cities, towns, counties, and unincorporated communities are all eligible to apply. Non-profits and for-profit entities are also eligible to apply, but only in unincorporated communities. If they want to undertake projects in cities or towns, they are required to...Read more
The state of Kansas continues to build momentum with the announcement of a new, ten-year broadband grant program designed to drive network expansion in unserved and economically depressed areas. It will go towards connecting tens of thousands of residents in the state who currently have no or few options for Internet access, while bringing commercial development and connecting farms desperately in need.
Currently, 3.5% of the state’s population, totaling almost 100,000 people, have no Internet access options at all. Students sent home at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic have struggled all summer and fall to get online to do coursework. Both urban and rural areas have continued to face significant challenges over the last decade, and the problem has only increased in recent months. It’s also an issue that has had ramifications for employers like Citizens State Bank in Cottonwood Falls, which has considered cutting local positions and shifting them to places with better Internet access options.
The new Broadband Acceleration Grant Program (BAGP) [pdf] offers lots of provisions for positive progress. It prioritizes low-income, economically distressed areas, as well as those without access to speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second). This likely means much of the money will end up in the southeastern and southwestern parts of the state (see map). The grant also urges applicants to engage local stakeholders in their communities and build relationships with community anchor institutions, businesses, and nonprofits so as to maximize impact.
Each project is eligible for awards of up to $1 million for each project, requiring a 50% match, and helpfully, the program remains open...Read more
A collaboration between cooperatives is bringing fiber connectivity to hundreds of unserved homes in southern Kentucky. Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (WRECC) and North Central Telephone Cooperative (NCTC) will be working together to connect 800 homes in the endeavor, which will also be used to gauge the feasibility of further buildout in the region down the road.
The project is situated in the southern part of Warren County, along U.S. Route 231 and just south of the city of Bowling Green near the unincorporated community of Alvaton. It began with a franchise agreement in 2017 between WRECC and NCTC, with KentuckyWired paying NCTC to build north into Warren County where the telephone cooperative’s fiber subsidiary could partner with WRECC to expand inside a pilot service area. The electric cooperative will supply backbone fiber and lateral lines via its existing assets, with NCTC funding the remainder of the build that will bring residents online.
A Welcome Venture
More than 60,000 people live in the county outside of the city limits of Bowling Green, and many of them — especially in the southern portion— have limited or no connectivity options. WRECC and NCTC make a natural pairing, with the latter (founded in 1938) serving power to more than 67,000 members today (about half of them in Warren County). NCTC (founded 1953) serves 20,500 members mostly in Tennessee.
WRECC President and CEO Dewayne McDonald said of the project:
Our board of directors has challenged us to find a way to bring high-speed Internet [access] to our members. After extensive research, we decided that partnering with others was the best route.
Construction started end of 2019, with the build split into 7 areas and originally anticipated to be complete in the summer 2020. By June the partnership had completed construction through areas 1-4, with drops in areas 1-3 nearly done by the end of the month. By August, crews were finished with areas 5 and 6 as well,...Read more
All across the country, municipal networks, cooperatives, and cities have been putting in extra effort to make sure that Americans have the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they need to conduct their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AT&T has decided to take another route. A USA Today report last week revealed that the company has stopped making connections to users subscribing to its ADSL Internet as of October 1st. Anyone calling the company to set up new service is being told that no new accounts are being accepted.
The decision comes right as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has released a report detailing that only 28% of AT&T’s territory can get fiber from the company. AT&T has deliberately focused investment in more urban areas of higher income. From the report:
The analysis of AT&T’s network reveals that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier areas, and leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies. Across the country, the median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL only — $60,969 compared to $45,500.
The Deep South Hit Hardest
As of today, it looks like the most conservative number of those affected by the decision will be about 80,000 households that have no other option. Our analysis using the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Form 477 data shows that the Deep South will be hit the hardest (see table at the bottom of the page).
Collectively it means more than 207,000 Americans who, if disconnected, will have no option for Internet aside from their mobile devices or satellite service. The number of Americans affected by the decision but which have additional wireline options is higher: roughly 2.2 million American households nationwide subscribe to the service (see map, below).
At this point the decision seems only to affect those subscribing to the company’s ADSL service. Those subscribing to ADSL2 and asymmetric VDSL won’...Read more
The federal government is about to spend more than $120 million on subsidies that, rather than improving rural connectivity, will make tens of thousands of families worse off.
These funds are part of a 2018 federal program intended to expand rural broadband access called the Connect America Fund phase II (CAF II) reverse auction. The program, in which Internet access providers competed for subsidies, will distribute nearly $1.5 billion over the next 10 years to connect unserved rural residents. But in some communities, the auction may do more to widen the digital divide than diminish it.
While some winning bidders committed to building out high-speed fiber optic networks, satellite company Viasat will rake in more than $120 million in subsidies to continue providing inadequate geostationary satellite connectivity to rural households that are clamoring for something better. Not only does satellite Internet access offer slower speeds, greater latency, and less reliability for a higher cost compared to other technologies, but Viasat’s subsidies are making those areas ineligible for future broadband funds, deterring other providers from building truly high-quality networks. Instead of bridging the digital divide, the process will relegate certain communities to satellite Internet access while others receive ultra-fast fiber and do nothing more than deepen the fissure.
Mo’ Money . . .
The Connect America Fund (CAF) is a multi-phase subsidy program that supports improved connectivity in rural, high-cost areas as part of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC’s) Universal Service Fund. The most recent phase of the program, the CAF phase II reverse auction, auctioned off regions to providers using a complicated formula that prioritized bids for low subsidy amounts and high-quality service.
Previous rounds of CAF mainly subsidized the large incumbents, such as AT&T and CenturyLink, but for the reverse auction, the FCC opened participation to other entities, including non-traditional providers like electric cooperatives. Eligible areas included rural locations where the incumbents had previously refused subsidies (and the accompanying commitment to expand Internet access).
Viasat was one of the largest winners in the CAF II reverse auction...Read more
Lobbyists from the cable and telecom industry succeeded in using the legislature to firm up their rural Massachusetts monopolies this session. Communities that rely on state funds for local publicly owned broadband infrastructure projects now face restrictions on the reach of their high-speed networks.
A Long Trip Through the Legislature
Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development bill includes a provision designating funding for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development for broadband deployment. The agencies distribute the funds to various communities where residents and businesses plan to improve their local connectivity. Approximately 20 towns have decided to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, including Alford, Otis, and Mount Washington, to name a few. Others are taking offers from Comcast and Charter, which will build out networks to more premises with state funding.
Many of the rural communities who are going with the publicly owned option want to connect households and establishments within the town proper, but also what they describe as “edge” properties — those beyond town limits but have no other choice for broadband. Edge properties in western Massachusetts typically don’t have access to anything better than expensive and unreliable satellite or dial-up. Often, there are only a few “edge” properties in each community, but neighbors don’t want to leave anyone behind.
Baker’s bill began its trip through the state legislature in March and, as is the case with typical large bills, went through numerous hearings along the way. Over the course of the legislative process, a question arose as to whether or not those rural towns wanting to serve edge properties would be able to use state funding to reach edge properties. In the original version of the bill, language specifically allowed municipalities the right to cross municipal borders to serve edge properties, but when the telecom industry opposed the language, it was removed in the House. The action left an ambiguous gap that Gail...Read more
On May 30th, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed SB 170, a bill local community leaders had watched for more than a year. The measure will allow municipalities to bond for publicly owned Internet network infrastructure. Advocates, local elected officials, and citizens have been seeking the authority for years. SB 170 may raise some questions as it's implemented, but the bill is significant because it symbolizes this state's decision to expand local authority for broadband investment, rather than limit the power of local communities.
Read the final version of SB 170 here.
A Better Measurement
As we reported more than a year ago, SB 170 sought to make changes in existing law by allowing local communities to bond for Internet infrastructure. The bill sat in committee until last November, when it was amended and picked up again. The final version of SB 170 allows communities to bond for projects that will connect premises that don’t have access to broadband as defined by the FCC — 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Should the definition of broadband at the FCC increase to faster speeds, so will the definition as it applies in New Hampshire. This is a welcome approach as big ISPs around the country have in recent years tried to convince state legislators to reduce the speed definition of broadband in state legislation. Many is the time well-meaning or well-funded state lawmakers decided to use the incumbent-dictated 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps or even 4 Mbps / 1 Mbps in order to appease the likes of AT&T or CenturyLink. Some states, such as New Hampshire, are realizing that such slow thresholds translate into very little investment into the type of Internet access residents and businesses need. Other states can learn from New Hampshire...Read more
Most residents and businesses in Oconee County, South Carolina, used dial-up connections when county officials applied for stimulus funding in 2010; there were still people in the county with no Internet access at all. A few had DSL connections, but even county facilities struggled with antiquated infrastructure. After an AT&T attack upended their plan to offer retail services, they pressed on and improved connectivity in the rural community. Powerful incumbent forces and a bad state law, however, eventually led this community to choose privatization.
Ripe For Stimulus
We spoke with Kim Wilbanks, who served as Project Manager for Oconee FOCUS, the 240-mile fiber optic publicly owned network. She worked with a small team of people that applied for funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to obtain funds for the project. Wilbanks and former FOCUS Director Mike Powell were instrumental in establishing the infrastructure. The Wilbanks family used dial-up Internet access until 2010 when AT&T finally installed DSL on her street on the edge of town in the mostly rural county.
The mountains and hills across the county’s 674 square miles create a terrain that is speckled with man-made lakes. Fishing, water skiing, and sailing are popular and the lakes and waterfalls contribute to the region’s hydroelectric energy. Approximately 75,000 people live in Oconee County scattered within many of the small rural communities. The largest city’s population is only about 8,000.
Oconee County’s rural environment with a sparse population, sluggish economic growth, and high number of unserved and underserved premises, was the type of region where stimulus funds helped jump start projects. When the county received a grant in the second round of awards in the summer of 2010 for $9.6 million, officials at the county planned to connect community anchor institutions and municipal and county facilities first. They planned to later expand and bring businesses and residents better Internet access. The county matched the federal grant with $4.7 million to deploy the $14.3 million fiber optic infrastructure. After the RFP process, they were able to start construction in early 2011. By the end of 2013, they had finished construction; by 2014...Read more
On September 22nd, Fillmore County and local telecommunications cooperative representatives participated in a groundbreaking event to mark the start of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in the rural town of Lanesboro, Minnesota.
Fiber To The Unserved
Lanesboro is located in Fillmore County about 50 minutes southeast of Rochester. The small rural town covers 1.3 square miles with a population of 755. Forty-one percent of households in Fillmore County are “unserved” as defined by both the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development and the FCC, which defines “broadband” as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Fillmore County residents and businesses are one small group of a large segment of rural America without access to high-quality connectivity. The FCC reported in 2016 that 39 percent of rural residents don’t have access to broadband, but actual numbers are much higher because incumbent reported mapping tends to overstate the reality.
Fortunately, rural cooperatives are picking up the slack where national incumbent ISPs are failing to deploy high-quality Internet infrastructure. Local telecommunications cooperative, AcenTek, will build the FTTH infrastructure. The network will connect 431 unserved households, 42 unserved businesses, and one community anchor institution (CAI) in the rural Lanesboro area, including Whalan, Carrolton Township, and Holt Township. The FTTH project is expected to reach speeds of 1 gigabit upload and download.
In January 2017, AcenTek received a $1.78 million grant from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Development Program administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The grant program is intended to provide state resources that help reduce the financial burden for new and existing providers to invest in building broadband...Read more