Tag: "rural digital opportunity fund"

Posted May 27, 2021 by Maren Machles

Fifteen years ago, Covington Electric Cooperative (CEC) was the first in the southeast region of Alabama to bring its members online with dial-up Internet access. And while it has since left the broadband business, it announced at the beginning of April it plans to come back in a big way, connecting all of its members once again through its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Buzz Broadband. 

Buzz Broadband is a new subsidiary that will provide FTTH broadband service to members across its six-county territory and more than 23,000 households. CEC chose the name, because “like the mighty bee, high-speed broadband is a force to be reckoned with. Having fast and reliable access to such technology takes the sting out of meeting deadlines, virtual learning, working from home and running a business.”

CEC started building out the backbone in January and is on track to finish by the end of this month, with the first members coming online this fall. According to CEC’s 2021 Annual Report, “expansion to all CEC members will be done in phases and will take a few years to be complete.”

Initially, the FTTH build out was supposed to take four years, but with all the enthusiasm around the network, Short asked the board if CEC could fast track the build out to two years. He said that’s what they are aiming for, and when Buzz Broadband was announced, it was made clear that the board is “committed to making high-speed fiber broadband access available to every CEC member by 2025, if not sooner.”

“We’re on track to invest $65 to $70 million in two years, where our electric plan was only $180 million give or take, and it took us 77 years to get to that point,” Short said. “It’s quite an accelerated cash flow.”

Overwhelming Support

CEC was formed in 1944, in response to the Rural Electrification Administration offering long-term, low-interest loans to finance the electrification of rural America. When no one else would bring service to the surrounding area, CEC was born. Today, it has 2,700 miles of electrical power lines spread across six counties, Covington, Coffee, Crenshaw, Dale, Geneva, and Escambia. It is headquartered in...

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Posted February 16, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

The conclusion of the RDOF auction was met with a good deal of drama and uncertainty, leaving many of us working after the fact to understand the policy and practical impacts of its outcomes.

This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Jonathan Chambers, a partner at Conexon, a network solutions provider for electric cooperatives around the United States who helped organize a consortium of nearly 100 cooperatives to successfully bid for more than $1 billion in funding from the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction administered by the FCC. 

Christopher and Jonathan unpack the design and implementation of RDOF not only in the context of the current broadband landscape, but the history of FCC auctions and federal infrastructure subsidy policy. They discuss how the funding will support upcoming projects which will bring fiber networks — many of them owned and operated by electric cooperatives — to hundreds of thousands of Americans over the next decade. 

But they also talk about the multitude of winning bids that went for a worryingly low percentage of what it will actually cost to build those networks across the country. Jonathan and Christopher discuss why we saw that happen, but also what kind of guardrails we don’t but should have in place to make sure that public money for broadband infrastructure doesn’t go to waste and, equally importantly, so that households in those areas don’t go another decade without a quality Internet connection. 

This show is 53 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 here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-...

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Posted December 9, 2020 by Christopher Mitchell

The FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund results are a puzzle. RDOF was the recent auction for large swaths of rural areas of the U.S. that have no broadband access, in large part because they were the territories of big companies like AT&T, CenturyLink (now rebranding as Lumen in hopes of improving its dismal image among its subscribers), Frontier, Windstream, and others. Up to $16 billion was at stake though the auction will actually disperse some $9+ billion dollars because many areas were bid well below what was expected. 

Please understand that this post is the best I can do right now - this is confusing and we are sorting our way through it. Please let me know if you can help us understand it. See our past coverage for more information.

The auction resulted in far more gigabit - 85% of locations I believe - than anyone expected, at far lower subsidy than expected. However, there is a lot of frustration and confusion because it is not clear that some of the top bidders can deliver. NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association - shared my original enthusiasm for RDOF and our concerns - best articulated over the years by Jon Chambers from Conexon - that the FCC was going to blow this auction by not ensuring those who bid had the capacity to deliver on the promised level of service. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, wrote this and recently tweeted on this:

Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting, has addressed this in the...

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Posted July 10, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

In an attempt to hasten broadband expansion in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, politicians in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have now introduced the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act. The bipartisan legislation — introduced in the House in late May and in the Senate just last week — would direct the federal government to speed up the disbursement of $20.4 billion in funding for rural broadband access, in order to connect communities that have been further isolated by the public health crisis.

We wrote previously about a push from electric cooperatives, led by consultant Conexon, calling for expedited rural broadband funds. Having quicker access to the planned subsidies, they argued, would allow the co-ops to connect the unserved rural Americans who are desperately in need of better connectivity to work remotely, attend online school, and participate in telehealth appointments during the pandemic.

Beyond electric cooperatives, the current legislation also has support from advocates and businesses that promote high-quality, often fiber-based broadband networks, but some have raised concerns that the funding process would be reliant on inaccurate federal broadband data.

A Bill in Two Acts

In the U.S. House, Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan introduced the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, HR 7022, back in May. The two legislators have since been joined by a bipartisan group of more than 30 cosponsors.

Last week, a similarly bipartisan set of senators introduced a version of the legislation, SR 4201, in their chamber as well. The cosponsors in the Senate are Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mike Braun of Indiana, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Doug Jones of Alabama.

The proposed bills direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to more quickly hand out monies from the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)...

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Posted May 28, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Update (6/18/20)

In response to the $1.25 billion Vermont received from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, lawmakers immediately began discussing using $100 million of it to bridge the state's digital divide, with fully $45 million going to construction of new fiber networks across the Green Mountain State. But they were quickly stopped short by restrictions set on the monies, which stipulated the strict terms by which the funds were to be used. In the end, the state won't be seeing any construction from these funds. Instead a smaller amount — $43 million — will be directed at immediate relief efforts rather than long-term planning:

  • "$13 million in proposed spending to connect Vermonters to broadband internet services. The bulk of that, $11 million, would create a program to be managed by the public service department called Get Vermonters Connected Now [to] provide subsidies to low-income Vermonters who can't afford to use broadband networks already available in their neighborhoods."
  • "$20 million to compensate utilities . . . for the cost of continuing to serve people who stopped paying bills due to COVID-19."
  • "$7.3 million for the Agency of Digital Services to make it more secure for state employees to work remotely and to upgrade the obsolete unemployment insurance computer system."
  • "$500,000 for a "telecommunications recovery plan."
  • "$466,500 for local cable access organizations in recognition of the additional coverage they've taken on during the pandemic."

It's possible that federal regulations could change, but in the meantime Vermonters will have to look inward to solve its connectivity challenges.

Original Story

Vermont’s Department of Public Service recently released an Emergency Broadband Action Plan that is among the most aggressive of all state responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The state currently has 944 cases of COVID-19, with 54 attributable deaths. A full third of households with school children...

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Posted May 27, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

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.

In our comments to the FCC, we pointed out past inconsistencies with the company’s...

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Posted April 23, 2020 by Christopher Mitchell

Last week, Frontier Communications told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that there are 17,000 census blocks in which it is now offering 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. This means well over 400,000 Americans now live in areas no longer eligible for the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program to expand rural broadband. The first phase will auction off up to $16 billion in subsidies later this year.

In the filing, the company also identified census blocks where it believes other providers will deploy broadband access through state-funded programs, making those locations ineligible for the federal funds as well.

Frontier is Flailing

Frontier recently declared bankruptcy, following a history of increasingly unsustainable acquisitions. It also just missed its milestone for the Connect America Fund, which required the company to deploy obsolete 10/1 Mbps service to 80 percent of the funded locations by the end of 2019 in return for more than $1.5 billion in subsidies. Some 774,000 locations should have at least 10/1 Mbps service by the end of 2020 from a company Consumer Reports repeatedly finds to be one of the worst Internet Service Providers in the nation.

Frontier is so bad that it went through repeated outages of 911 in Wisconsin, dealt with state investigation after state investigation (including but in no way limited to Minnesota, Ohio...

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Posted April 3, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

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

USDA logo

USDA launched the ReConnect broadband program last year to award more than $1 billion in grants and loans to connect unserved and underserved rural areas. In round one of the program, the agency distributed more than $600 million to 70 providers across 31 states. Many of these awards went to community-owned networks, including rural cooperatives and local...

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Posted April 2, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

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.

We'd also like to hear from you. Would you like to hear shorter, more frequent episodes instead of our usual weekly episodes to keep up with the ever-changing times? Let us know by commenting below, by sending an email to podcast@muninetworks.org, or by tagging us on social media.

This show is 39 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of...

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