Tag: "rural"

Posted September 30, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

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...

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Posted September 29, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

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,...

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Posted September 18, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

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.

...

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Posted September 17, 2020 by Christopher Mitchell

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.

Posted September 11, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

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-McCracken

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-McCracken

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-McCracken

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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