Tag: "federal funding"

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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Posted September 4, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Applicants in the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program requested over $1.4 billion to finance rural broadband expansion, exceeding available funds by more than $800 million. Despite tough competition, much of the funding may go to community broadband networks, since more than half of the applicants are publicly or collectively owned, including electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments, and federally recognized tribes.

As was the case in previous federal programs, most community broadband providers applying for ReConnect funds plan to deploy modern, high-speed fiber networks. Unlike the large telecom monopolies, which are letting their rural networks rot even while raking in government subsidies, community owned networks frequently leverage federal funds to deploy future-proof fiber optics in their rural service areas.

ReConnect Review

In 2018, Congress authorized $600 million for the ReConnect program to expand high-quality connectivity in rural America by providing grants and loans to Internet access providers. The first round of ReConnect applications closed earlier this summer with $200 million available in each of the three funding categories:

  • 100 percent grant
  • 50 percent grant - 50 percent loan
  • 100 percent loan

Earlier this year, Congress approved an additional $550 million for the program, which the USDA will distribute after awarding round one funds.

logo-reconnect-eligible.png Most entities were eligible to apply for ReConnect funds, including for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes. The guidelines for which communities qualified, however, were much more restrictive. Proposed service areas had to be rural, as defined by the USDA, and had to have between 90 and 100 percent of the...

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Posted July 2, 2019 by lgonzalez

Summer is the time for the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference, one of the events that Christopher is sure to attend every year. This year, it was held in Dillon, Colorado, and while he was enjoying the scenery, he collected a series of interviews. This week we hear from Brian Worthen, CEO of Mammoth Networks.

With its home base in Wyoming, Mammoth serves locations in eleven western states. They primarily provide wholesale middle mile service, but the company also offers last mile connectivity in select locations. Brian describes how, over time, Mammoth has developed a system of adopting combinations of technology to get the job done. They provide service in areas that are often sparsely populated, in areas where the geology varies, and Mammoth adjusts to the needs of their diverse customers.

The company received an award at Mountain Connect for their work on Colorado’s Project THOR. In this interview, Brian describes their involvement with the project and with several other local projects in the state. Christopher and his guest talk about cooperatives and their expanding role in delivering high-quality Internet access. They consider which levels of government are best suited to offer financial assistance to broadband initiatives, especially in rural communities, and discuss the potential for Low Earth Orbit Satellites to contribute to universal broadband access.

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

This show is 32 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...

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Posted May 13, 2019 by Hannah Bonestroo

On April 4th, 2019, the Board of Commissioners of Berrien County, Michigan approved a resolution that formally acknowledges that achieving countywide access to high-speed Internet is crucial to the county’s mission of improving quality of life for present and future generations.

Read the resolution here.

Connected Nation ranks Michigan 34th among states for broadband adoption and an estimated 368,000 rural households still do not have access to FCC defined broadband at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Many areas of Berrien County lack access to Internet speeds over 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps uploads. The resolution will ensure that the county commits to pursuing opportunities and partnerships that increase broadband availability.

County commissioners Ezra Scott, of New Buffalo, and Teri Freehling, of Baroda introduced the measure and have already begun taking steps to turn it into action including creating a board subcommittee that works with municipalities and community partners to pursue broadband opportunities. They're also exploring the possibility of a grant application for the newly announced U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program). The commissioners hope that the resolution demonstrates how serious Berrien County is about pursuing countywide broadband access. As Freehling stated, “broadband is more than an option, it’s a necessity.”

Other local leaders have put their commitment to better local connectivity on record with various resolutions. Most recently, Bozeman, Montana, passed a resolution declaring broadband essential infrastructure. In 2018, Bangor, Maine,...

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Posted May 7, 2019 by lgonzalez

The Austin, Texas, 2019 Broadband Communities Summit was about a month ago, but we’re still enjoying the experience by sharing Christopher’s onsite podcast interviews. This week, he and University of Virginia Assistant Professor Christopher Ali have an insightful conversation about rural broadband, media, and the Internet — and we get to listen in.

Dr. Ali works in the University Department of Media Studies and has recently published a piece in the New York Times titled, “We Need A National Rural Broadband Plan.” In the interview, he and Christopher discuss the op-ed along with Dr. Ali’s suggestions for ways to improve federal involvement in expanding rural connectivity. In addition to structural issues of federal agencies that affect the efficiency of rural expansion, Dr. Ali discusses the advantages he sees from a single-entity approach.

The two also get into a range of other topics, such as the importance of broadband to help deliver a range of media, especially in rural areas where local media outlets are disappearing.

Read Dr. Ali's op-ed here and order his book, Media Localism: The Politics of Place from the University of illinois Press to learn more.

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

This show is 28 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...

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Posted May 3, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.

Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.

Addressing Legal Ambiguity

As we explained last year, a tax policy change included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act carelessly put rural co-ops at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they accepted government funding for broadband projects or disaster relief, among other things. Traditionally, these government grants were excluded from the requirement that electric and telephone cooperatives obtain at least 85 percent of their income from members (often referred to as the member income test) to maintain their tax exemption. The 2017 law threatened this precedent by changing the tax code so that “any contribution by any governmental entity or civic group” is now included in a corporation’s gross income. This has made some co-ops hesitant to apply for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Pilot Program for fear of jeopardizing their...

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