Tag: "federal funding"

Posted January 14, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

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...

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Posted January 9, 2020 by lgonzalez

In recent years, co-ops and municipalities in Colorado have been making fiber optic network investments to provide connectivity so citizens can compete in the digital economy. With all this fiber deployment in Colorado, there are still extremely rural areas that lack access to broadband. With a little help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), people living in Dove Creek, near the Utah border, will soon have access to fiber connectivity.

Another Cooperative Receives ReConnect Funding

This fall and winter, we've reported on several electric and telephone rural cooperatives that have won funding through the USDA's ReConnect Program. In Dove Creek, Emery Telecommunications & Video, Inc., a subsidiary of cooperative Emery Telecom will extend service to the small community in Dolores County, Colorado. The co-op will use the $2.73 million grant to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to more than 500 residences, eight school district facilities, and public safety facilities in Dove Creek and in the nearby community of Monticello, Utah. Among the premises that will receive better connectivity will be farms, ranches, and small businesses.

Emery Telecom will add $1 million to the grant funding and anticipates completing the project within five years, although Emery CEO Brock Johansen believes they can finish deployment sooner. The demand is high, adding extra motivation to finish the project sooner. “We get a lot of requests for service out near the state line,” he said.

"Best Thing Since Pockets on a Shirt"

Neither residents nor businesses have options for Internet access in Dove Creek and and the only type of Internet access available are DSL and satellite. CenturyLink and EarthLink provide DSL service; neither cover the entire town. Dolores County Commissioner Floyd Cook told the Durango Herald in November that the county courthouse and the local high school, middle school, and elementary school have higher capacity connections, but no ISP provdies the same caliber of Internet access businesses or households. The Emery Telecom project is a welcome...

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Posted January 3, 2020 by lgonzalez

In recent weeks, several rural electric and communications cooperatives have received federal ReConnect funding grants and loans. In December, Tyler and Wetzel Counties in West Virginia learned that they will also benefit from the program. Approximately $5.6 million has been awarded to the region for two projects that will provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity in some of the state's northern rural areas.

Development Is the Goal

In Wetzel County, the Ohio Valley Industrial and Business Development Corporation will lead the project and the Tyler County Development Authority, Inc., takes the reigns in the adjacent county. In addition to projects within each county, more than 74 miles of fiber will connect the two.

The Wetzel County project will include $2.1 million in ReConnect Program grant funding and use a matching amount to fund the total project, estimated at $4.2 million. The Ohio Valley Industrial and Business Development Corp., intends to connect more than 1,900 households, five educational facilities, a healthcare center and nine additional community facilities.

The Tyler County Development Authority, Inc. (TCDA) plans to use their $1.7 million grant and a ReConnect loan of equal amount to deploy fiber infrastructure throughout the county. They will bring FTTH to almost 1,400 residences, three school facilities, a healthcare center, and five community facilities within a 26 square mile area. 

Executive Director Eric Peters of the TCDA discussed the Tyler County project at a recent ceremony, where USDA Rural Utilities Administrator Chad Rupe announced the award:

"The Tyler County Development Authority will own the system's physical infrastructure and will lease it to a private service provider. CityNet was instrumental in providing technical expertise and their background as a successful and experienced service provider was invaluable. We anticipate that CityNet will be our contracted ISP."

Peters highlighted the need for high-quality Internet access for families, businesses, and...

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Posted December 31, 2019 by lgonzalez

It’s the end of the year once again, which means the Community Broadband Networks Initiative team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance takes their place in front of the mic for the predictions show. In addition to offering our expectations for 2020, we review what happened this past year and compare it to the predictions we made at this time last year. Get ready for some opinions and laughs.

Once again, Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco and Research Associate Katie Kienbaum weigh in along with Christopher and Lisa. Our newest addition to the team, Michelle Andrews, joins for the first time this year; Michelle is our GIS and Data Visualization Researcher.

We review advancements from cooperatives, the growing interest in municipal projects and open access, and new approaches. We talk about realizations of models we anticipated and also some that took us by surprise. The crew discusses state and federal legislative changes and funding, partnerships, and Christopher even gives Comcast a break. You don’t want to miss this!

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

This show is 42 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 Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for the episode.

Listen to ...

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Posted December 18, 2019 by lgonzalez

The USDA's ReConnect Program to expand broadband in rural areas has been awarding funding for several weeks now; electric and telephone cooperatives have received significant awards. In North Carolina, Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) recently learned that their application for ReConnect funds has been granted and the cooperative will receive $7.9 million toward expanding their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service.

Celebrating in Columbus County

Cooperative CEO and General Manager Keith Holden, USDA State Director for North Carolina Robert Hosford, and Chief of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe Michael Jacobs gathered at the Tribe Headquarters in Bolton to announce the award and discuss the project. ATMC will match the USDA grant with an additional $7.9 million, rather than take a loan from the ReConnect program. The total cost of the project is around $15.87 million and will deploy FTTH to more than 2,700 premises, including homes and more than 50 businesses. The infrastructure will also serve three critical community facilities, ten educational facilities, and 23 agricultural operations in northern Columbus County. 

At the event, Hosford noted that better connectivity will help agricultural establishments in the region, one of the main sectors of the local economy. 

“The health and vibrance of rural communities most usually is from farmers and forestry in this state,” Hosford said. “If those small communities are healthy, that means their farming communities are healthy, and this is just another tool in our toolbox to help these rural communities.” 

Hosford said the agriculture industry has struggled in recent months due to ongoing trade disputes, so any boost is a welcome one.

ATMC will use the funding to build out to Tabor City, Hallsboro, Lake Waccamaw, Bolton, and areas north of Whiteville.

Other Grant Sources 

The co-op is adding the ReConnect grant to other funding it received in 2019, including a $1 million award from the state. Funding came from the NC...

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Posted November 18, 2019 by Sayidali Moalim

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded a $2.85 million grant to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative headquartered in Halls, Tennessee, and $9.75 million to Orangeburg County, South Carolina to develop broadband infrastructure. The awardees will use the ReConnect grants to construct or expand existing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to thousands of households, critical community facilities, and educational facilities.

A Reconnect Primer

In 2019, Congress allocated $600 million for the ReConnect Program to help expand high-quality Internet access to rural America. Applicants can apply for a 100 percent grant, 100 percent loan, or a grant-loan combination. The ReConnect Program provides funding to allow for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes to deploy broadband infrastructure under specific guidelines. The service area for qualified applicants must be rural communities with 90 - 100 percent of the population considered "underserved," defined as Internet access speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload or lower.

As we reported in September, more than half of the applications submitted came from cooperatives and local governments.

Orangeburg County

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Orangeburg County was awarded federal stimulus funds in 2010 and added around $4 million of their own money for rural broadband projects. Shortly following the stimulus package award, the state legislature enacted a law discouraging simlar local investment. The law requires local governments to charge rates for broadband Internet services similar rates to those of private companies, even if service could be provided at a lower cost. This law effectively limits local broadband authority and discourages communities from developing publicly owned networks.

Orangeburg County is pressing on, however, in order to connect...

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Posted November 8, 2019 by lgonzalez

As we reported back in September, the bulk of applicants to the USDA's ReConnect Loan and Grant Program came from publicly owned projects. Cooperatives, local governments, and tribal government projects comprised more than half of the applications. Awards are now being announced and one of the largest awards so far is going to a North Carolina cooperative to provide fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in southeast North Carolina.

ReConnecting Star

Star Telephone Membership Corporation will be awarded a grant of almost $24 million to develop Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service to more than 8,700 households, 10 educational facilities, around 20 businesses, and three community facilities within a 739 square mile area. Subscribers will be able to sign-up for speeds that begin at 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download.

At a November 6th event at Star Distribution Center in Clinton: 

Jeff Shipp, vice president of operations for Star Communications, said projects will take place in the Herring exchange in the northern region of Sampson County, which also loops around the middle portion of Sampson County. The second is the Six Runs area part of county towards Turkey and the third is Harrells, in the southern region. Other projects are scheduled for Bladen County as well.

“We’re very excited about this,” Shipp said. “We’re excited for our members and for our community. We have the lowest density in the entire state in our area, roughly around 3.8 subscribers per mile. We would have to budget $25,000 per mile to put fiber in the ground. That’s why a grant such as this from USDA is so important. We’re also fortunate enough to receive additional funding from the state this year for an area in Bladen County to assist with fiber as well.”

Star Telephone Membership Corporation

The cooperative was created when two smaller co-ops merged in 1959. Since then, the entity has been serving the rural areas in and around Clinton, North Carolina, and has been one of the early adopters of FTTH for members, many who are farmers.

“This is really a big, big day in Sampson County,”...

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Posted November 7, 2019 by Sayidali Moalim

Minnesota Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, alongside Republican State Representative Pete Stauber recently announced a $1.9 Million grant for broadband deployment in Aitkin County. Two local cooperatives will use the Community Connect grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to deploy fiber optic infrastructure in order to spur economic development, business, telehealth, and educational improvements.

In a press release, Sen. Klobuchar said, "This crucial funding will connect these communities - bringing high speed Internet to even more Minnesotans. We must continue working to expand broadband access in our rural areas, a necessity for our families and businesses.” Sen. Smith commented, "I’m glad to see USDA investing in Aitkin County—including Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe—to ensure rural Minnesotans aren’t left behind in our work to provide affordable and reliable service to everyone.”

Co-ops Cooperating

In 2016, Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) received a $1.76 million grant from the Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Program. MLEC partnered with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) and worked together to successfully create XStream Fiber, a Fiber-to-the-Home network (FTTH). The Border to Border Broadband Program grant allowed the co-ops to deploy XStream Fiber to 800 households, several businesses, and local institutional sites in Aitkin County. 

The Community Connect grant will allow the  partners to expand XStream Fiber to 235 more homes and businesses in Rice River Township, Spaulding Township, and tribal lands in Aitkin County, Minnesota. 

MLEC will be in charge of managing billing, marketing, and other subscriber services and CTC will manage network connectivity, Internet backhaul, and backend support. MLEC will also be in charge of handling basic inquiries from...

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Posted September 24, 2019 by lgonzalez

The Connect America Fund (CAF) from the federal government has been both praised and criticized as a mechanism to expand rural broadband deployment. In this episode of the podcast, Principal of Mattey Consulting Carol Mattey talks in depth with Christopher about the program. Carol was a Deputy Bureau Chief in the Wireline Competition Bureau at the FCC to help develop the program and has worked on the National Broadband Plan.

In addition to offering a primer on CAF for those of us who aren’t familiar with its inception or purpose, Carol offers a historical perspective that includes the broad goals of the program. She looks back and offers her opinions on the aspects of the program she considers successful and those that need improvement. Carol and Christopher consider the challenges of creating such a program, including political pressures and the difficulty of navigating unchartered waters. 

They compare the different phases of the CAF program and how large national ISPs and smaller entities have used the awards. Christopher and Carol also discuss possible changes in benchmarks that could make the resulting infrastructure more future proof and useful to rural communities.

For more conversations about CAF with other guests that we’ve had on the show, check out:

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Posted September 13, 2019 by lgonzalez

A mapping method to accurately depict broadband coverage in the U.S. remains elusive. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced that they intend to work on the issue but officials in North Carolina aren’t waiting. They’ve launched their own efforts to document Internet access speeds in order to challenge to the FCC’s broadband coverage map, the basis for many loan and grant programs.

North Carolina began seeking self-reporting data from residents in 2017 via their online NC OneMap tool. With only around 6,000 people using the tool, however, state officials such as Jeff Sural have decided to seek help from the Measurement Lab (M-Lab), which has launched similar projects in Seattle and Pennsylvania. Sural is the state’s director of Department of Technology’s broadband infrastructure office and he's seeking ways to ensure communities in North Carolina have access to funding to expand rural broadband access.

Streamlining for the Masses

The goal of the new effort will be to make gathering the data as simple as possible. The NC OneMap site requires users to jump from a speed testing page back to the mapping site in several steps. M-Lab and North Carolina want to develop an application that will gather upload and download speed, IP address and coordinates of the device at the time of the test. They also plan to collect information on ISP, latency, and whether the connection is throttled or manipulated in any way. 

In an interview with StateScoop, Sural said:

“So far, one thing we have gleaned from our crowdsourcing tool is that there are a number of locations in areas where the FCC says there is [download coverage of 25 megabits per second and an upload rate of 3 Mbps] that are not getting those speeds.”

Faulty Maps Need Fixing

Officials seeking funding for unserved and underserved areas find themselves blocked due to grossly overstated FCC coverage and are looking for methods to collect data on their own. Because service to one premise in a census block deems that particular block to be “served” by the FCC, large rural swaths of property with no access or poor access are wrongly categorized and ineligible for a...

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