Tag: "rural"

Posted September 11, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

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...

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Posted September 9, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

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

The...

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Posted September 8, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

A new report out by North Carolina's Broadband and Infrastructure Office looks at the ways that broadband and telehealth can solve some of the disparities that disproportionately affect tens of thousands of its citizens living in the western fifth of the state. These “coal-impacted communities,” it argues, would benefit greatly across a host of interventions which would be facilitated by investment in wireline broadband infrastructure, technical assistance, and digital literacy programs. If implemented, they would increase access to medical doctors and mental health professionals for all North Carolinians, eliminate barriers related to transportation, reduce state healthcare costs, increase the speed of intervention and reduce the time to diagnosis, and eliminate unnecessary hospital and emergency room admissions.

Healthcare in the High Country

"Carolina Crosscut: Broadband and Telehealth in North Carolina's Appalchain Coal-Impacted Communities" [pdf] comes out of a $100,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant given to the Office of Broadband Infrastructure and the Office of Rural Development for two purposes: to figure out broadband availability and adoption as they relate to health disparities across the twenty-county region clustered along the state’s western border, and to map assets and come up with specific policy recommendations for state agencies and lawmakers.

These are North Carolina’s “coal-impacted” communities, which the report defines as those which exhibit a “generational dependence on coal extraction and related supply chains [which] has resulted in personal and community economic devastation.” To be clear and despite its title, the framing here is economic, and not based on the adverse health effects of working in coal extraction. It should also be noted that the economic impact described in the report surely extended beyond the twenty counties at the center of the study.

Carolina Crosscut collects and collates a plethora of data that should be useful to any number of groups moving forward. It maps broadband access, adoption, and speeds at the census tract level against a cluster of health...

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Posted September 2, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

That community networks act as a positive force in the broadband market is something we’ve covered for the better part of a decade, but a new study out in the journal Telecommunications Policy adds additional weight (along with lots of graphs and tables) which shows that states which enact barriers to entry for municipalities and cooperatives do their residents a serious disservice. 

“State Broadband Policy: Impacts on Availability” by Brian Whitacre (Oklahoma State University) and Robert Gallardo (Purdue University), out in the most recent issue of the journal, demonstrates that enacting effective state policies have a significant and undeniable impact on the pace of basic broadband expansion in both rural and urban areas, as well as speed investment in fiber across the United States. 

Digging into the Data

The research relies on the State Broadband Policy Explorer, released in July of 2019 by Pew Charitable Trusts, and focuses on broadband availability across the country from 2012-2018. Whitacre and Gallardo control for the other common factors which can affect whether an area has broadband or not (like household income, education, and the age of the development), and combine the FCC’s Form 477 census block-level data along with county-level data to explore expansion activities over the seven-year period. By making use of an analytical model called the Generalized Method of Moments, Whitacre and Gallardo are able to track all of these variables over a period of time to show that there is a statistically robust connection between specific state policies and their influence on the expansion of broadband Internet access all over the United States. 

The authors zero in on three particular policies that they say have among the most significant impact on whether a community has broadband or not: whether or not the state has passed laws restricting municipalities and cooperatives from building and operating broadband networks; whether or not the state has a broadband office devoted to expansion and staffed by full-time employees; and whether or not the state has a funding program...

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Posted August 21, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

A couple years ago, fed up member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) in Virginia banded together to form Repower REC, a grassroots group that’s seeking to reform the state’s largest electric cooperative and advocating for clean energy and improved Internet access.

Rural electric co-ops are supposed to embrace the cooperative principles of democratic member control and concern for community, but some of REC’s members charge that the co-op’s practices fall short of those goals.

Repower REC hopes to bring greater transparency and member oversight to the co-op, as well as clean energy programs and a cooperative-owned broadband network.

Cleaning up Governance and the Grid

Rappahannock Electric Cooperative serves 170,000 meters in portions of 22 counties stretching from northern Virginia toward the Chesapeake Bay. It is the largest electric cooperative in Virginia and one of the largest in the country.

REC logo

Member-owners of the co-op launched Repower REC in 2018 in partnership with Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, in response to concerns over undemocratic practices and the lack of transparency at REC. The group has called for a number of reforms, including public board meetings and transparent board elections. People involved in the group have also spoken out against lobbying activities that they believe were not in the best interest of the co-op’s members. Repower REC members have run as candidates for the co-op board of directors, though none have won a seat as of yet.

Some of the initial interest in governance at REC stemmed from member dissatisfaction with the co-op’s lukewarm response to renewable energy as well as the co-op’s attempt to double its fixed access charges....

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Posted August 20, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Less than two years after Mississippi lifted its ban on electric cooperative broadband networks, at least 15 of the 25 co-ops in the state have announced plans to provide Internet access to members, with more on the way.

“I would venture to say that there is a higher percentage of co-ops launching [broadband] projects in Mississippi at one time than anywhere else in the country,” said Randy Klindt, partner at Conexon, a consulting firm that is working with several co-ops in the state.

The months in between were marked by two major changes. First, in January of 2019, the Mississippi legislature passed a law that enabled co-ops to create broadband subsidiaries to connect their members. Then a year later, the pandemic hit, highlighting the urgent need for better connectivity and turning the steady stream of cooperative interest in broadband into a veritable flood.

In response to the global health crisis, the state leveraged federal CARES Act money to establish a grant program to fund electric co-op broadband deployment. Through the program, Mississippi awarded $65 million to 15 electric cooperatives to build high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home networks in some of the state’s most disconnected and rural communities, dramatically ramping up the pace of the co-ops’ broadband projects.

“When we started two years ago, I would’ve guessed that you would have had maybe five systems out of 25 in the state that would be to the level where we are now,” Coast Electric Power Association (EPA) President and CEO Ron Barnes said in an interview. “Most people would tell you they were surprised by the speed,” he added.

Opening the Floodgates

Internet access has been lagging in rural Mississippi for years. The state came in at 42 in BroadbandNow’s most recent connectivity rankings. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at least 35% of rural Mississippians do not have access to the Internet at broadband speeds.

In 2018, the state co-op association, Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, brought its 25 member organizations together to gauge their interest in changing the state law so the co-ops could address their rural members' inadequate connectivity. At the time, electric co-ops in the state were prohibited from operating for any purpose other than providing...

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Posted August 19, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

If you live in the land of ten thousand lakes, your help is needed. The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition has launched a speed test initiative to collect much-needed data from everyone in the state so that lawmakers and stakeholders can better direct broadband expansion efforts now and in the future. Hop over to the speed test page and give them a hand.

Data, Data, Data

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition (MRBC) — which is made up of over a hundred utilities, cooperatives, regional development commissions, nonprofits, private companies, and rural and urban interest groups — has worked for years with local communities and in the state capitol to advocate for more funds and help local communities address Internet access imbalances across the state. The initiative is the latest mark of their efforts, asking Internet users to input their addresses and how much they pay their Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get a better sense of speeds, availability, and prices. 

To date, they’ve gotten results from a little over 15,000 tests in 11,000 locations. There are predictable problem areas in the northeast part of the state, and according to the map just under 7% of locations are unserved so far. Saint Louis, Itasca, and Carlton Counties account for the bulk of the tests outside of the metro area, though Minnesotans in Scott and Le Sueur Counties south of the 169 corridor are also putting up a strong showing. 

We’ll be interested to see the report the group puts out once the test is complete and the data have been analyzed, but initial qualitative results show great news for those living in areas with cooperatives and other nonprofits and less-great news for those in areas with some of the problem monopoly ISPs. Subscribers of Paul Bunyan Communications (which started life as a telephone cooperative), for instance, enjoy high symmetrical upload and download speeds that should be serving those forced to work, visit the doctor, and grocery shop from home well. 406 results from the ISP in Itasca County show an average of 74 Megabits per second (Mbps) both up and down...

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Posted August 18, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Ron Barnes, President and CEO Biloxi-based Coast Electric Power, an electric cooperative in Mississippi area, and Jon Chambers, Partner at Conexon, a consulting agency working with rural electric cooperatives to bring fiber to communities around the country. 

In January of 2019 Mississippi state law changed to allow electric cooperatives to provide broadband services to their subscribers, and Ron talks about how Coast Electric, which serves around 80,0000 residents across three counties, began its planning phase shortly thereafter. He relates how the current public health crisis moved up Coast Electric’s timeline, why the cooperative has committed in its buildout to connect the least densely populated areas of its service footprint first, and the challenges and rewards that go along with bringing high-speed Internet to Mississippi’s coast. 

Jon Chambers joins them to highlight how remarkable it has been to see Mississippi’s electric cooperatives spring into action over the last 18 months and play a leading role, and why it’s important that, already, 15 out of 25 have begun to plan their broadband plans with the injection of CARES Act funding. Together, the group discusses what these changes mean for digital equity and inclusion in Mississippi, since the new law requires the cooperatives to build to all of their customers.

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

Read the transcript for this episode.

This show is 33 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 this page or visit the...

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Posted August 17, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, is currently experiencing firsthand the consequences of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC's) 2018 preemption of local governments’ authority to regulate 5G infrastructure in their cities. With its initial handful of applications for new small cell transmitters just submitted to the county board by Verizon under the new rules, local officials are grappling with a host of limitations — including fee caps, shorter timing windows, and rights of way exemptions — which outline clearly a problem more and more communities will face in the coming months and years.

Less Say, Less Money

We pointed out when the FCC handed down the order in the fall of 2018 that it represented a significant giveaway to wireless carriers while placing additional restrictions and financial burdens on local regulators, most of which are county boards and city departments. Among the most troublesome of the order’s provisions are new 60- and 90-day approval windows for the installation of infrastructure on existing and new wireless facilities, a limitation to annual fee scales for small cell sites set between $100-250, a right now enjoyed by wireless providers to place infrastructure on municipally owned poles and traffic lights, and a rule that says if regulating authorities don’t get to an application within sixty days it automatically becomes approved. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the fee cap in a ruling last Wednesday.

In sum, it puts additional strain on local governments (many of whom are already stretched thin) while limiting their ability to set their own fees for access to publicly owned infrastructure as well as the expedited work they are being forced to do. At the time, opponents called it a public tax on private 5G deployment, a giveaway,...

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Posted August 14, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-...

Tribal residents and others living along near Six Rivers National Forest in Humboldt County, California are about to get a broadband boost. The Yurok and Karuk Tribes announced at the end of July that the Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative received more than $10 million from the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC's) California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to add over a 100 miles of additional fiber to the project’s community network, connecting hundreds of additional homes, businesses, and anchor institutions. The award marks the second injection of funding from the CPUC’s grant program to the initiative. 

Over the River and Through the Woods

Humboldt County covers more than 4,000 square miles along the coast in the northwest part of the state, about 60 miles west of Redding. It’s one of the least-densely populated areas in the state, marked by rural, mountainous, rugged terrain for the roughly 150,000 people who live there. Those in the northern fifth of the county have it particularly hard; the region is bounded by national forests on either side, with the Klamath River running down the middle. As recently as 2009, telephone service in the region was unreliable, and Internet access was restricted to dial-up or satellite. The Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative (KRRBI) has been working since 2013 to address this digital divide.

The new CPUC award totals a little more than $10.8 million to add 104 miles of new fiber to their middle-mile network. Last-mile connections come via fixed wireless, a cost-effective way to bring broadband to rural areas. The new route will connect the communities of Orleans to Orick and Weitchpec to Wautec and Johnsons, bringing new service to 616 households, 8 first responder agencies, and 14 additional anchor institutions like schools, tribal offices, and health care clinics. The project will also add three redundant links to the existing network across the 80-square mile area.

“For the residents of far Northern California, this initiative will...

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