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Frontier Backs Down Slightly on Challenges to RDOF Eligible Areas
Over the weekend, Frontier filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announcing that it would “welcome the inclusion” of the census blocks where it claims to newly offer broadband service into the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Phase one of RDOF will distribute $16 billion to providers to expand rural broadband access in unserved areas later this year.
We wrote previously on Frontier’s attempt to remove 17,000 census blocks, representing over 400,000 Americans, from the first phase of RDOF by reporting that the company could now provide broadband speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, the federal minimum definition of broadband, in those areas. At the time, we expressed concern that Frontier, which has a long history of neglecting its rural networks, was exaggerating its broadband coverage in an effort to prevent competition. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) filed comments with the FCC requesting that the agency investigate Frontier’s claims before removing any of the identified census blocks.
But while Frontier’s recent filings suggest that the company will not fight to remove those census blocks from the subsidy program, it leaves the door open for the FCC to remove the contested areas anyway.
Filings Offer Inadequate Explanations
On May 23, Frontier filed a short notice with the FCC seeking to “clarify” its position, indicating that it would not fight to exclude the 17,000 census blocks in question despite maintaining that it does offer 25/3 Mbps speeds in those areas. The company followed up on May 26 with a longer filing that responded to comments filed by ILSR and others and asserted that its claimed broadband speeds are correct.
Electric Co-ops Request Expedited Rural Broadband Subsidies From FCC
Earlier this month, more than 70 electric cooperatives joined consulting firm Conexon in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to speed up planned rural broadband funds in response to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In comments filed with the FCC, Conexon called upon the agency to accelerate phase one of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, planned for later this year, in order to connect rural communities and bolster local economies affected by the current crisis. Specifically, Conexon suggested that the FCC expedite RDOF applications and subsidies for providers that plan to build gigabit fiber networks, since under the current auction rules, those bidders are essentially guaranteed funding. The filed comments, available in PDF format below, included an open letter signed by dozens of electric co-op leaders who support the proposal.
While the urgency of rural connectivity has been underlined by the nationwide shutdowns intended to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the need for better rural broadband isn’t new. Conexon stated in its comments, “Whether the current health and economic crisis lasts a few months or a year, funding long-term rural fiber networks is necessary and long overdue.”
Proposed RDOF Process
Unlike those who want to postpone RDOF until the Covid-19 crisis passes or the FCC collects more accurate broadband data, Conexon opposes any further delay of the auction. “If anything, in the current economic climate, the RDOF Phase I auction should be accelerated, not delayed,” the company stated.
Community Broadband Networks Round up Half of ReConnect Round One Awards
Last fall, we reported on the large number of community-owned broadband networks among the applicants for the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity.
Since then, the USDA has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers. Almost all grant and loan recipients plan to build high-quality fiber networks with the funds.
While the impact will be limited by the relatively modest size of the program and restrictive eligibility requirements, the ReConnect awards will nevertheless lead to improved economic opportunity and quality of life in rural areas. These investments will enable more rural Americans to take advantage of precision agriculture, online education, and telehealth visits — services that are now more important than ever as the nation finds itself in the grips of a pandemic.
Co-ops, Munis Win Big
Approximately 30 rural telephone and electric cooperatives in 16 different states are taking home ReConnect grants and loans from the first round of funding. Co-op awards include a nearly $19 million grant for Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative, a $28 million grant and loan for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and a $2.73 million grant for Emery Telecom for projects in Colorado and Montana.
Pandemic Changes Pace of Federal Funding for Broadband Deployment
Like most other aspects of life, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted the federal government’s plans to disburse grants, loans, and subsidies for the construction of rural broadband networks. But unlike the sporting events and concerts that can be put on an indefinite hold, these funds are now needed more than ever by the Internet access providers trying to connect rural households during a time when everything has moved online. Federal agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), must find ways to manage the challenges caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus and to leverage their funds to support essential networks for families stuck at home.
These agencies’ main rural broadband programs — the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and USDA’s ReConnect — are at different stages, both in their funding cycles and in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has already led to changes at the USDA, which has extended the ReConnect application deadline and is set to receive additional funds from Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC has yet to alter the upcoming RDOF subsidy auction, but it could speed up the process to address the current crisis, which threatens to linger through the summer.
While more must be done to address the many digital divides exacerbated by the pandemic, federal agencies should at least use existing programs to their full advantage to connect rural Americans during this unprecedented time.
ReConnect Extends and Expands
How the FCC Plans to Spend $20 Billion on Rural Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode 402
For this episode, Christopher was joined by returning guest Jonathan Chambers to discuss the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will finance broadband deployment across rural America. Jonathan is a partner at Conexon, which works with rural electric cooperatives to plan, fund, and build fiber optic networks.
The pair review the details of the new RDOF program and how the reverse auction compares to the prior Connect America Fund. Jonathan explains how the funding process rewards the local co-ops, communities, and companies that step up to provide high-quality connectivity. He argues that the FCC should move the auction timeline up to quickly expand Internet access because of the pandemic. They also talk about some issues with RDOF and about the potential for the program to improve broadband access in rural areas.
Previously, Jonathan was on Episode 349 and Episode 321 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss the Connect America Fund.
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USDA Extends ReConnect Application Deadline to End of March
Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is extending the ReConnect broadband program round two deadline to March 31, 2020. The agency will distribute $550 million this year in grants and loans to expand connectivity in rural America. Previously, applications were due by March 16 to be considered for the funding.
In a USDA press release, Deputy Under Secretary Bette Brand said:
By extending the ReConnect Program application deadline, we are helping even more qualified organizations access the essential funding to make high-speed broadband connectivity a reality for rural communities across America.
Round and Round
Congress approved the initial $600 million for the first phase of the USDA's ReConnect program back in 2018. In 2019, the agency accepted round one applications for projects in underserved rural areas that haven't received goverment broadband funding before. Eligible entities included small Internet Service Providers (ISPs), rural electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments and tribal networks.
So far, USDA has announced 70 grant and loan recipients across 31 states in ReConnect round one. We’ve written about a number of these awardees including, recently, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, the Town of Arrowsic in Maine, and Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative.
Round two of the ReConnect program will distribute an additional $550 million, with awards to be announced later in 2020.
Oregon Politicians Press USDA for Changes to ReConnect Broadband Program
In two letters sent at the end of February, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reconsider certain aspects of the agency’s ReConnect broadband grant and loan program. The senators’ letters, addressed to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, called on the agency to address, “administrative hurdles and eligibility problems within the ReConnect Program that have put critical broadband infrastructure assistance out of reach for Oregonians and communities across America.”
The USDA, which is currently accepting applications for the second round of ReConnect funding, has awarded more than $600 million in grants and loans since launching the program in 2019.
“A High-stakes Gamble”
Merkley and Wyden’s first letter [pdf], joined by Oregon Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader, raised lingering problems with the USDA’s determination of eligible areas and the application process for the program.
The letter reads:
We heard several concerns from our constituents in Oregon that the initial design of the ReConnect Program limited accessibility for local Internet service providers (ISPs) due to both administrative issues and eligibility restrictions. While changes have been made to improve the program, we continue to hear from many Oregonians that several major issues unfortunately remain.
In particular, the Oregon officials identified as barriers the complicated and costly application process as well as an inaccurate and unclear designation of underserved areas. “Many local ISPs feel as if [applying] is more akin to a high-stakes gamble rather than soliciting funding for a fiber-to-the-premises project,” they explained.
Additionally, the lawmakers noted that the ReConnect program’s scoring criteria can prioritize less rural, non-tribal areas, writing, “If this grant focuses on bringing broadband to rural and unserved America, the evaluation criteria seem to contradict the program’s mission.”
Satellite Subsidies Limit Opportunity
Alaskan Telephone Co-op to Connect Remote Village With Fiber, Wireless Middle Mile
In 1999, Yakutat became home to one of Alaska’s first surf shops. Now, two decades later, the coastal community of 600 people is looking at another first for the community — high-speed Internet access.
Cordova Telecom Cooperative (CTC) will be expanding its broadband network to Yakutat from the co-op’s headquarters 220 miles away in Cordova, Alaska. Already, CTC offers wireline and mobile connectivity in and around Cordova. The new project, codenamed NICEY or New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat, will bring high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to the village, which has a large Native Alaskan population.
NICEY will be financed in large part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect grant of nearly $19 million awarded to CTC in December. This money will help fund not only the deployment of the fiber network in Yakutat but also the construction of several remote wireless towers to connect the village to the broader Internet. “I don’t know how many grants of this size local groups have gotten,” CTC general manager and CEO Jeremiah Beckett told the Cordova Times. “It’s pretty big for Cordova.”
Neighbors Partner for Grant
Locals and visitors alike can only reach Yakutat by air or sea — there are no roads to the southeastern Alaskan community. The Internet is similarly hard to access for village residents.
Yakutat’s poor connectivity forces the school to limit student access to online materials and courses; businesses sometimes struggle to run card transactions. Households’ only available option for Internet access is satellite, typically hampered by low speeds, frequent service interruptions, and restrictive data caps.
ReConnect Funding a Shot in the Arm for Virginia Co-op Fiber Broadband Deployment
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), has been working on their plan to deploy Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) to members and surrounding premises since 2017. The rural cooperative received a financial boost when they recently received a grant and loan award from the USDA's ReConnect Program.
Welcome Funding for Fiber
With $28 million - part loan and part grant - CVEC plans to fund the first three years of their project. The USDA funding will allow CVEC to connect more than 17,000 households, six health care centers, 15 educational facilities, and 15 other community facilities. When the entire five-year plan is complete, approximately 37,000 premises will have access to FTTH.
In Buckingham County, CVEC officials announced the award to about 200 people, including local resident Virginia Jackson. She and her family rely on their mobile phones' hotspots for Internet access, which is unreliable and can be expensive. She and her husband were interested in the project and how it would improve connectivity for them and left "excited to see what the project brings to our community."
Early in the planning process, CVEC sought funding from local governments where they plan to deploy infrastructure. They did obtain support, but still sought grants and loans elsewhere to help pay for construction of the project, which they estimated to cost between $110 and $120 million. CVEC has received grants from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), FCC Connect American Fund, Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC), and a loan from the Rural Utility Service (RUS) for smart grid upgrades.
Arrowsic, Maine, Receives Federal Grant to Develop Fiber Network
There is a festive air in Arrowsic, Maine, after Governor Janet Mills announced on January 30th that the community will develop a publicly owned broadband network for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. The community will receive $1.2 million in combined grant and loan funding from the USDA's ReConnect Pilot Program to connect 237 households, 20 businesses, and four farms with symmetrical fiber optic service of up to 100 Mbps.
This will be a substantial upgrade because Arrowsic currently contends with patchy DSL connections that top out at 10 Mbps download through Consolidated, with upload speeds much slower. Poor connectivity has been affecting the economy at the local level because it's a strike against Arrowsic when people are looking to relocate to the region. Community leaders approached incumbent providers, including Consolidated and Spectrum, but the national companies rejected requests to serve the rural community with a small population of only around 450. Rather than settle for antiquated, poor serve, Arrowsic decided to pursue a community broadband network.
The 3 Bridged Islands Broadband Initiative (3BIB) is a nonprofit created by the towns of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and Southport. The organization first initiated a feasibility study, explored funding opportunities, and submitted the application for USDA grant to develop the network in Arrowsic. They've worked with Axiom to develop the design for the infrastructure and, according to the 3BIB website, intend work with private sector partners to offer services via the fiber optic infrastructure.
After the approval of USDA grant, the town of Arrowsic is now determined to close the digital divide and expects to do more to boost the local economy. The town is also looking forward to providing telehealth services to older people with chronic illness, increasing students’ ability to do research and complete assignments through better Internet connections.
D.J. LaVoy, the USDA rural development deputy undersecretary said in his announcement on January 30th: