Vermont Communications Union District ECFiber has been experiencing faster-than-expected growth and will hit eight additional towns in 2021 (including Bradford, Corinth, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Windsor). Vermont Digger also reports that it expects to take on an additional $11 million in debt to finance its expansion in the near future, bringing its total debt to $52 million.
Along the banks of the Columbia River, Multnomah County (pop. 813,000), Oregon is considering a publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network after being handed a study more than a year in the making. The report estimates that a countywide network reaching every home, business, and farm in a five-city area would cost just shy of $970 million, and bring with it a wealth of savings and other benefits to the community it serves.
The study has its origins in a 2017 push initiated by an advocacy group called Municipal Broadband PDX which has sought more affordable and equitable Internet access in the region. In 2018, the County Board of Commissioners agreed that it should be explored and approved the funding of a study, with the city of Portland and Multnomah County each contributing $100,000 and the remaining towns of Fairview, Gresham, Troutdale, and Wood Village joining the effort to collectively contribute an additional $50,000 for funding. Over the next year, CTC Technology and Energy conducted a comprehensive survey, analysis, and evaluation, and the results were delivered at the end of September.
The report offers good news: the majority of residents in Multnomah County want a publicly built and operated FTTH network, and it would be economically viable to provide symmetrical gigabit service to as many of the more than 320,000 households as want it for $80/month. At a projected 36% take rate on a 4% bond over a 20-year period, the network would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $966 million, depending on a host of local and market factors, some of which are fixed and others subject to change. It would see net positive income by the end of its fourth year of operation, and see a total of more than $54 million in positive net income by the end of its 20-year depreciation period (a standard model for fiber infrastructure, though they often last longer). These numbers change when adjusting the take rate and interest rate, but in the vast majority of scenarios, building a community owned FTTH network in Multnomah County is feasible.
Broadband in Multnomah County
US Ignite has announced a new initiative called Project Overcome which will fund five projects looking for novel solutions to broadband connectivity problems in communities around the United States.
Th endeavor, funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, will “support the selection and buildout of five proof-of-concept network deployments designed to connect both rural and urban communities in novel ways.” More than three-quarters of the funding will go directly to project awards, with the aim to:
[C]ollect data to measure the technical and social impacts of different connectivity strategies [in order to] discover patterns of success that can be repeated on a larger scale across the country, and to catalog the distinctions that emerge based on variations in the communities served.
The Application Process
An RFP will come out in the next few weeks, with winners chosen by early spring. From the website, competitive applications will:
Be chosen based on the use of innovative technologies, such as mesh networks and new spectrum access solutions, as well as creative deployment models that leverage both public and private sector partners. Participating teams should draw from some combination of academic, nonprofit, industry, government, student, and volunteer partners. The five proposals ultimately selected will reflect a mix of population density characteristics, demographics, geographic regions, housing types, local and industry collaborations, and technical approaches.
US Ignite is an initiative of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) which aims to advance connectivity efforts around the country. It leans heavily on creating partnerships between private, public, educational, and nonprofit entities to develop next-generation network technology, experiment with open access, and explore the potential of software-defined networks. As part of this effort it plays a role in advancing the...Read more
One silver lining of the ongoing public health crisis is the chance to attend a wide array of virtual events which tackle aspects of community broadband expansion all across the country, in a variety of contexts. This week features three opportunities to hear about what’s going on in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Read on for details.
Blandin Foundation Annual Conference
First up is Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation’s annual conference. It’s gone virtual for 2020, and the organization has taken it as an opportunity to shake things up. Instead of a three-day conference, Blandin is hosting four weeks’ worth of events starting Tuesday, October 6th, at 9am CST.
The conference will feature a combination of panels with updates on everything from technology outreach to telehealth to efforts by community anchor institutions to stay connected, as well as mentoring sessions, regulatory and legislative updates, and feature presentations by leading voices:
- Wednesday, October 7, 11:00am: From Digital Infrastructure to Transformation: Leveraging Broadband for Community Economic Development by Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., Purdue Extension.
- Thursday, October 8, 9:30am: Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Opportunities and Challenges Post-Pandemic by Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA.
- Thursday, October 15, 3pm: Federal Broadband Regulatory and Legislative Updates by Molly O’Leary, Director of Government Affairs, NTCA.
- Friday, October 23, 10:00am: Book Club: Thank You for Being Late and Thursday, October 29, 9:15am: How I Think About the Importance of Communities in the 21st Century by Thomas L. Friedman, Author, Reporter, Columnist, New York Times.
- Thursday, October 27, 9:30am: Connecting Residents to Essential Services: Solutions for Local Communities by Deb Socia, The Enterprise Center.
- Thursday, October 29, 10:30a: 2020 MN County Broadband Reports: Measured Progress, Accelerated Need by Ann Treacy, Treacy Information Services
It’s likely Deb Socia will be talking about Chattanooga’s landmark effort to connect 28,000 students to free 100/100 Megabit per second (Mbps) Internet. We covered Robert Gallardo’s...Read more
Last June's scaled-down Vermont’s Emergency Broadband Action Plan, intended as a fast-moving effort to connect residents in the Green Mountain State in the era of COVID, has seen its first two rounds disbursed since August. The Get Vermonters Connected Now Initiative has granted Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the state a little under $8 million of its available $17 million budget to fund projects which will reach almost 7,500 locations by the end of the year. Of these, more than 3,000 did not have 4/1 Megabit per second (Mbps) service.
Round 1 Winners
The program is run by the Public Service Commission, which does not stipulate any match requirements and establishes 25/3 Mbps as the minimum speed for new services (though it does encourage grantees to aim for 100 Mbps symmetrical connections “where possible”). Community-owned networks are included in the list of winners.
The first round, announced at the end of August, totaled $3,926,650 to serve over 5,800 locations. Of them, the Commission notes, 2,200 lack a connection of 4/1 Megabits per second (Mbps), and 465 premises identified a specific telehealth, telework, or distance learning need related to the ongoing public health crisis. The full list of winners are:
- $351,520 to Mansfield Community Fiber to extend fiber broadband to 676 locations and offset the customer costs for 10 locations
- $171,770 to the NEW Alliance (Cloud Alliance and New England Wireless) to serve wireless broadband to 632 locations
- $1,964,230 to VTel to serve wireless broadband to 3,992 location
- $56,607 to Duncan Cable to extend fiber broadband to 35 locations
- $152,500 to Comcast to extend cable broadband to 77 locations
- $1,117,570 to ECFiber to extend fiber broadband to 394 locations
- $112,453 to Waitsfield & Champlain Valley Telecom to extend fiber broadband to 26 locations
Round 2 Winners
The second round, just announced, totaled $3,991,847 in grant for 1,651 eligible...Read more
Almost 54,000 electric cooperative residents will see the benefits of a statewide law change in Maryland after a summer filled with changes. After a state vote to allow deregulation, Choptank Electric, which serves member owners across nine counties in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, voted in August to become member-regulated so that the cooperative can pursue broadband projects in a part of the state that has long suffered from poor or no connectivity options.
A State Law and a Membership Vote
The process unfolded earlier this year, when representatives for the co-op spoke with the legislature in Annapolis about offering broadband to its members. State law at the time meant that electric utilities were regulated by the Public Service Commission, which prevented them from entering the broadband space.
The Eastern Shore sits across Chesapeake Bay, with 450,000 people living across its nine counties. Driven by a lack of connectivity options and a desire for economic development, area legislators submitted HB 999, which drew support from dozens of businesses, 1,200 current Choptank customers, and a number of local governments. The “Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020” [pdf] passed the state legislature on May 8th, 2020, and freed the co-op from regulation by the Public Service Commission. Talbot County resident Pamela Keeton testified to the Senate Finance Committee:
The bottom line is, no one wants to pay taxes and no one wants to spend money, so we’re left with no Internet service.
The move allowed Choptank to become member-regulated after two regular meetings and a membership vote, which took place from May to August both in person and electronically. Ultimately, it needed 7,000 members to vote yes. All told,...Read more
Over the summer, Oregon took a second swing at revising its state Universal Service Fund program by passing SB 1603, a bill which will create a larger rural broadband development fund by including retail wireless and VoIP service (in addition to traditional telephone service) in the fees it collects to bring basic connectivity services to unconnected parts of the state. The new law lowers the current tax rate on telecommunications service provider's gross revenue (from 8.5% to 6%) but dramatically broadens the collection base, which will bring in needed dollars to expand broadband access to state residents without it in coming years. The move comes on the heels of the state’s move to establish a Broadband Office in 2018 to “to promote access to broadband services for all Oregonians in order to improve the economy and quality of life.”
Nuts and Bolts
SB 1603, which passed the state legislature on June 26 and was signed into law on July 7, directs the Oregon Business Development Department (OBDD) to transfer up to $5 million of the funds collected each year to a broadband fund for rural development projects, administered by the OBDD. While the amount that will be collected remains unknown at the moment, it will no doubt represent a significant boost: the current mechanism for funding rural information infrastructure projects — the Rural Broadband Capacity Pilot Program — received 25 applications for almost $5 million in requested funding, but was only able to grant $500,000, or 10%. SB 1603 caps the money to be collected by the Oregon Universal Service Fund at $28 million annually.
As a result of SB1603, Oregonians can expect the average cell phone bill would go up by about $4 a year, and those with landline telephone service will see an annual decrease of $12 a year. Some VoIP providers had contributed willingly prior to the bill — that voluntary opt-in is removed.
NH Electric Cooperative President Steve Camerino is on the Down to Business podcast from NH Business Review and talks about the vote to amend the charter and efforts to add broadband Internet access to their services.
When Craig Eccher, CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, joined Christopher on the podcast last fall, he had an exciting project to talk about: the electric cooperative, after strong calls from its membership asking their utility to deliver broadband, stepped up and committed to an $80 million, 3,250-mile fiber build across the rugged terrain of rural Pennsylvania, the first leg propelled by $52.6 million in federal and state grants. Tri-Co Connections, the subsidiary building the network and serving as provider, has begun connecting residents in an aggressive plan to serve 10,000 users in the next three years. The move makes Tri-County the first electric co-op in Pennsylvania to enter the fiber space, and it's doing so in dramatic fashion.
More Humble Beginnings
The project started as a smart meter initiative as the electric co-op realized that reliability and other cost savings gains could be made if it ran fiber to its substations and other infrastructure, but at an annual meeting five years ago members overwhelmingly said they wanted more. In fact, when surveyed, 80% said they wanted their electric utility to deliver broadband. But the co-op faced some significant obstacles, primarily in the form of low population density — its service territory in north-central Pennsylvania has an average of just six homes per mile. Financially, the plan wouldn’t have worked without a successful bid for a number of grants. They include a $17 million PennDOT grant, a $1.5 million state grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project program, a $33 million Connect America Fund II (CAFII) grant, and a $2.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant. All told, they add up to two-thirds of the anticipated costs of the project. The rest will be paid for by ongoing subscription fees as residents, farms, and businesses are brought online. Sheri Collins, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania’s Office of Broadband...Read more
North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program announced two new rounds of winners recently that will bring Internet access to more than 11,000 households, businesses, farms, and community anchor institutions across the state. The roughly $16 million in projects represents a significant bump in the state’s commitment to its least-connected people, though there remains significant work to be done.
Counties in Need
The winners span projects in 11 rural counties: Bertie, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Graham, Greene, Martin, Nash, Robeson, Rockingham, and Swain. The first round, announced in July, includes $10 million in GREAT funds joined by $2 million in CARES Act money to bring access to 8,017 households and 254 businesses, farms, and community institutions. The governor announced a second round at the end of last week that leverages an additional $4 million in CARES Act funds to connect 3074 households and 191 businesses.
Duplin County (pop. 59,000), in the southeast part of the state, won particularly big this time around, with four providers (CenturyLink, Cloudwyze, Eastern Carolina Broadband, and Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC)) pursuing projects totaling more than $3 million. See the full list of winners here.
Among them are a handful of community networks (like ATMC) and local ISPs (like Eastern Carolina Broadband). Last year ATMC won $7.9 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, which it paired with matching funds to deliver Fiber-to-the-Home to more than 2,700 homes, businesses, and farms.
A Great Program, With Caveats