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For those in research, policy, community support, and the host of interrelated spaces who are hard at work to make sure that everyone in the country who wants to get online can, expanding broadband is a two-fold problem: that of broadband availability, and that of broadband adoption.
The first of these relates to the problem of making sure that federal and state legislation and the policies that go with them work towards building the infrastructure and creating the competitive markets that result in reliable, low-cost, high-speed Internet access for all. The second of these — broadband adoption — relates to the collection of obstacles that keep people offline even after an Internet connection is available up to their door. Cost remains one of the most problematic, but there are others as well.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic this year has made overcoming these challenges more important and immediately pressing than ever, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has initiated a program to help: one-on-one, phone-based support from locally trained people across a range of digital inclusion services call the Digital Navigator Model.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sudden, massive public need for trustworthy digital inclusion services. Millions of Americans need support from digital inclusion programs: to get connected with affordable home internet, find affordable computing devices, and learn basic digital skills. “Digital Navigators” is an adaptation of traditional digital inclusion programming to this new reality, providing one-to-one dedicated support via phone service.
How Electric Cooperatives in Mississippi Have Taken the Lead in Broadband Expansion — Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 423
This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Ron Barnes, President and CEO Biloxi-based Coast Electric Power, an electric cooperative in Mississippi area, and Jon Chambers, Partner at Conexon, a consulting agency working with rural electric cooperatives to bring fiber to communities around the country.
In January of 2019 Mississippi state law changed to allow electric cooperatives to provide broadband services to their subscribers, and Ron talks about how Coast Electric, which serves around 80,0000 residents across three counties, began its planning phase shortly thereafter. He relates how the current public health crisis moved up Coast Electric’s timeline, why the cooperative has committed in its buildout to connect the least densely populated areas of its service footprint first, and the challenges and rewards that go along with bringing high-speed Internet to Mississippi’s coast.
Jon Chambers joins them to highlight how remarkable it has been to see Mississippi’s electric cooperatives spring into action over the last 18 months and play a leading role, and why it’s important that, already, 15 out of 25 have begun to plan their broadband plans with the injection of CARES Act funding. Together, the group discusses what these changes mean for digital equity and inclusion in Mississippi, since the new law requires the cooperatives to build to all of their customers.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
HB 13, a law moving through the Ohio state legislature, creates the state’s first-ever residential broadband expansion program in order to address an access gap faced by hundreds of thousands of households across the state. Unfortunately, it bars municipally owned networks and electric cooperatives from participating in the $20 million pot of funds aimed at extending Internet access to areas with significant connectivity challenges.
How It Would Work
The bill — titled “Establish Residential Broadband Expansion Program” — passed the Ohio House of Representatives on June 11 of this year, and takes aim at addressing last-mile connections and bringing more Ohioans online. If passed, it would create a $20 million fund and effect regulatory changes to provide subsidies for private entities in the state to extend their networks and connect more people.
HB 13 establishes a number of conditions that have to be cleared for projects to be eligible. First, areas included can’t already include projects that have gotten money from the federal programs like Connect America Fund or the FCC's upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund taking place this fall.
Second, the bill establishes a score mechanism that privileges areas that are unserved and underserved. Projects addressing unserved areas top the list: it defines the latter as lacking access to download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. The bill then favors “Tier 2” projects (which provide a minimum of 25/3 Mbps service) to either unserved areas or to “Tier 1” areas (those where download speeds come in between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps and upload speeds are between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps).
Finally, HB 13 provides extra consideration for projects aimed at “distressed areas,” projects that can demonstrate in-kind or other financial contributions that have already been approved, those that utilized public Rights-of-Way, and those that demonstrate advantages in terms of the speed of the buildout or future scalability.
Problem Provisions and Vague Definitions
Cooperatives have been doing a lot over the last few months to advance connectivity efforts around the country. That trend is continuing in Virginia, where Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC) and Northern Neck Electric Cooperative (NNEC) have announced partnerships with utility provider Dominion Energy to expand broadband access to thousands living and working in rural areas in the state.
The two projects represent over nearly $32 million in total investment, with money coming from the counties, the electric cooperatives, the investor-owned utility, and the state.
The first-of-its-kind agreement between PGEC and Dominion Energy was originally announced last February, and aimed at a combined 6,700 residents in Surry County. Dominion will serve as the middle-mile provider, and is already installing fiber as part of upgrades to its grid management. It will lease that fiber to RURALBAND, PGEC’s broadband subsidiary, which will then be responsible for building last-mile connections to homes and businesses and acting as the retail service provider. 2,200 of those receiving Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connections will be existing customers of PGEC, with the other 4,500 customers of Dominion. In total, the project is projected to cost between $16 and $18 million.
“This partnership brings rural Surry County into the modern communications age, bridging a vital utility gap through reliable high-speed broadband services to residents and businesses, essential to Surry’s social and economic prosperity,” said Surry’s Acting County Administrator Melissa Rollins in a press release.
Granite Staters with poor Internet access in rural areas should soon realize the benefit of HB 1111, which just passed the state legislature and was signed into law by the governor. The measure provides for the establishment of communications districts to pursue Internet infrastructure projects in New Hampshire. In addition, the law makes it easier for municipalities to determine which areas under their purview are unserved in order to target broadband expansion efforts and expand access to all.
Removing Barriers, Providing New Tools
Two years ago SB 170 passed the legislature, allowing communities in the state to bond to develop publicly owned Internet infrastructure for the first time. The bill, however, made such moves contingent upon proving that the proposed areas were “unserved” by a connection of 25/3 megabits per second (Mbps). To do so local governments were required to issue an RFI to the existing Internet Service Provider (ISP). At the time we anticipated trouble with existing providers who had a history of claiming service to large areas when the reality was that many were unserved, and it turns out that worry was well-founded: communities reported that ISPs were ignoring requests for information, making it difficult for them to make progress.
HB 1111 changes that. If an RFI to a provider goes unanswered for 60 days, it is assumed the latter is unable to deliver broadband. Municipalities can then come together and form communications districts which have the authority to use general obligation bonds to fund an overbuild of the area and seek out public-private partnerships to provide new service.
Yesterday, Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the DIGITAL Reservations Act, a bill which ends the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) practice of selling wireless spectrum rights on the lands of Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and grants ownership, management, and governance of all spectrum to those groups in perpetuity. The bill also calls for the creation of an FCC fund to support broadband efforts, an advisory team to provide regulatory and technical assistance, and a data collection program to support future connectivity efforts in those communities. It represents a dramatic new approach to addressing the digital divide in Tribal communities, which remain among the least well-connected of all across the United States today.
Breaking Down the Bill
The Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing on Reservations Act [pdf] offers significant investment in a multi-pronged approach. It’s driven by twin impulses. From the bill:
To date, the [Federal Communications] Commission has failed to implement nationwide spectrum opportunities or uniform licensing for Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to make spectrum available over their Tribal lands or account for the unmet needs of native Nations in compliance with the Federal trust responsibility.
The Commission’s actions parallel failed Federal Reservation Era policy that divided Indian land holdings and created systemic barriers to Indian Tribes’ economic development and legal jurisdictional complications on Tribal lands that continue to disadvantage Tribal communities today.
Maine’s High-Speed Internet Infrastructure Bond Issue, which we first wrote about a month ago, has passed. 76% of voters said yes to Maine Question 1, which authorizes the issuance of $15 million in general obligation bonds to fund projects which will expand broadband access for residents in underserved and unserved areas. Underserved areas are those where less than 20% of the households have speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Unserved areas are those where broadband service isn’t offered by provider. The northern and eastern parts of the state suffer from particularly poor connectivity options. The money will join $30 million in additional federal, local, and private money, for a total of $45 million to be invested in the near future.
Where We Go From Here
The ConnectME Authority will administer the grants. It’s a significant injection of funds for the broadband authority, which has given out slightly more than a million dollars a year over the last ten years to build mostly last-mile connections and bridge the broadband gap. Passing the measure makes Maine the first state to bond to fund broadband projects, serving as an example to other states looking for avenues to do the same.
As it stands, somewhere around 83,000 households lack access, though this doesn’t include those families who can’t afford to subscribe. The impact of this digital divide has become even more starkly outlined over the last six months, and since the future of telework relies on affordable, reliable, high-speed connections, states that don’t commit resources to the problem will fall further behind.
A Concerted Effort
“Doing Schoolwork in the Parking Lot Is Not a Solution,” Says the New York Times — But This Legislation Is
“An adequate connection is no longer a matter of convenience; it is a necessity for anyone wishing to participate in civil society,” wrote the New York Times Editorial Board in an opinion article published on Sunday. Yet, tens of millions of Americans still lack reliable access to broadband connectivity.
The Times editorial echoed the concerns of many digital equity advocates, who have been ringing alarm bells ever since the Covid-19 pandemic moved most aspects of everyday life online, cutting off anyone without a home Internet connection.
To help bridge the gap, many states and localities have deployed free Wi-Fi hotspots to schools, libraries, and other public spaces. But, as the Times points out, this is not enough — the federal government must do more to connect our communities. “[T]he coronavirus has demonstrated that it is time for the federal government to think more creatively and to act more swiftly to deploy broadband service,” argued the editorial, pointing to legislation that would make an impact, including the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act and the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act.
Digital Divides Threaten Students’ Education
Inadequate Internet access isn’t only a problem in rural areas, where broadband infrastructure isn’t always available. Many city residents also lack home connectivity, due to the high cost of a subscription. The Times explained:
In urban areas, the struggle to get reliable or affordable Internet service disproportionately affects minorities. The cost of broadband makes it three times more likely that households without Internet service can be found in urban, rather than rural, environments, according to John B. Horrigan of the Technology Policy Institute.
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 U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, which includes the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, on Wednesday, July 1. The bill is currently in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced his opposition to the legislation, calling it "pointless political theater," and saying, "this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate."
Earlier this week, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, a sweeping bill that would take major steps toward closing the digital divide.
We reported on the legislation yesterday, but today we want to take a closer look at the bill text [pdf]. Below, we examine some details of how the act would fund broadband deployment and affordable connections for Americans across the country.
Grand Plans to Build Broadband, Connect the Unconnected
Among the investments proposed in the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, the largest is $80 billion to fund the construction of broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas. That amount dwarfs the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) upcoming $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).