Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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California digital equity advocates say that recent cuts to the state’s ambitious broadband deployment plan unfairly harm low-income and minority communities. And despite promises from state leaders that the cuts will be reversed, local equity advocates say the process used to determine which neighborhoods should be prioritized remains rotten to the core.
In 2021, California state leaders announced a $7 billion, multi-armed plan to bring affordable, next-generation fiber to every state resident. A key part of the plan involved building a $4 billion statewide middle-mile open access fiber network designed to drive down the costs of market entry, improve competition, and reduce broadband prices.
At the time, California officials said “the statewide network will incentivize providers to expand service to unserved and underserved areas.” Groups like the EFF lauded the “historic” investment, likening it to bold, early efforts to ensure rural electrification.
But last May, California officials quietly announced they’d be making some notable cuts to the state’s affordable broadband expansion plan. Blaming inflation and rising construction costs, the state’s renewed budget called for a 17 percent reduction in planned broadband investment, on average, across the state.
From Colorado to Texas, municipal broadband providers continue to rack up industry accolades, not just for delivering fiber service–the gold standard of Internet connectivity–but for these networks’ ability to provide ubiquitous access across an entire community at affordable rates.
The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recently announced that its Community Broadband Projects of the Year Awards for 2023 will go to the Connexion network in Fort Collins, Colorado and TeamPharr.net in Pharr, Texas.
Awarding Community-Wide Access and Affordability
The Fort Collins award is in recognition for the city having established “a municipal broadband utility created by and for the community to improve the life of all 80,000 residential and commercial properties of Fort Collins through better, more affordable Internet,” NATOA said in announcing the award.
But it wasn’t just because Fort Collins’ network provides city-wide access to fiber. The award also recognizes that “Connexion offers the fastest Internet speeds available at affordable prices (emphasis added) as well as competitive phone and TV services.”
Local electrical cooperatives say they’re making inroads on efforts to finally bring affordable gigabit fiber connections to long neglected portions of rural South Carolina. Dubbed Carolina Connect, the alliance between Aiken Electric Cooperative, Newberry Electric Cooperative and Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative is doing what cooperatives across the nation have taken the lead on in recent years in the rural areas many serve: filling the gaps left by regional telecom monopolies disinterested in finishing the job.
Aiken’s website indicates that the cooperative coalition has delivered broadband to more than 14 towns and cities, is currently in the process of bringing broadband to eight more, and has five additional communities in the planning stage. According to the Aiken Standard, the coalition has laid about 6,000 miles of fiber within the nine counties served by Aiken Electric alone; predominantly rural markets spread across the Southwest part of the state.
The deployment is not only delivering broadband to many residents for the first time ever, it’s delivering the kind of affordable pricing locals have never seen, thanks to a notable lack of regional competition between regional telecom monopolies like Breezeline (formerly Atlantic Broadband) and AT&T.
As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) continues to move forward in administering the single biggest federal investment to expand high-speed Internet access in U.S. history, each state and U.S. territory is wrestling with how to best spend the windfall as they lay out their Five Year Action Plans and Initial Proposals necessary to claim their portion of the $42.5 billion BEAD program.
One major barrier to providing universal access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet service–long recognized by ILSR, telecom experts, and a growing number of ordinary citizens–are the monopoly-friendly preemption laws that either outright ban or erect insurmountable barriers to building publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks, aka municipal broadband.
Preemption in the BEAD Era
Currently, 17 states have such preemption laws, most of which have filed their Five Year Action Plans and/or their Initial Proposals. In each of those states, at the behest of Big Cable and Telecom incumbents, state lawmakers have erected legislative barriers to municipal broadband to protect the monopoly players from competition, which is at the very heart of why the digital divide exists in the first place and why tens of millions of Americans suffer from the slower speeds and higher costs that go hand in hand with monopoly service.
Berthoud, Colorado, population 11,717, is the latest Colorado community to explore community broadband alternatives to expand public access to affordable fiber. Currently in the process of crafting a request for quote (RFQ), the city tells ILSR it hopes to make its final determination by November and have a preliminary plan in place by the end of the year.
Originally, Berthoud had planned on forming a coalition with three neighboring Colorado towns (Johnstown, Mead and Milliken) in a bid to expand access. That plan involved striking a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Lincoln, Nebraska based Allo Communications, to deliver fiber to every address within three years.
But city leaders say the original plan wasn’t meant to be.
“The four communities did not strike a deal with Allo,” Berthoud Business Development Manager Walt Elish told ILSR. “We could not come to terms. Since then, we have looked at other options, including a town-owned network.”
As with many towns and counties, the high cost of a municipally owned broadband network has the city examining different options, including a potential public private partnership (PPP) with existing providers. PPPs are increasingly common but can have their downsides, including less municipal control over pricing or the potential trajectory of the finished network.
The key for states to unlock their portion of the $42.5 billion in federal BEAD funds is the submission and approval of their Five Year Action Plans and Final Proposal. The infrastructure law requires states to first file an action plan, and then prepare more detailed Initial Proposals, allowing residents and stakeholders to submit public comments.
So far, 14 states have filed their Five Year Action Plans with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Treasury Department agency in charge of allocating the funds to each state and U.S. territory. According to the NTIA’s website, Maine, Louisiana, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont have all filed their draft Five Year Action Plans.
The states that are now in the process of completing their Initial Proposals include: Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.
Today, we will look at two states (Maine and Louisiana) and follow up with the others as we are getting a clearer picture of how each state intends to put this historic infusion of federal funds to use.
Loveland’s municipal broadband utility Pulse is a heartbeat away from expanding into a small neighboring Colorado town eager to offer its residents the same attractive, high-quality Internet access that can be found in Larimer County’s biggest cities.
Officials in Loveland and Timnath, Colorado (pop. 7,800) recently announced the ratification of an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) that greenlight’s a plan to bring ubiquitous, affordable high-speed Internet access to yet another community in the Centennial State, as an increasing number of Colorado cities and towns embrace municipal broadband after years of frustration with the inadequate, high-priced service from the region’s monopoly incumbents.
"The selection of Pulse as our broadband service provider reflects a thorough process of assessment and consideration,” Timnath Town Planner Brian Williamson said in a press statement after the agreement was approved. “We are excited to work together, leveraging their expertise to ensure our residents have access to reliable, high-speed Internet that will contribute to the growth and prosperity of Timnath."
Keeping Up With The Loveland’s
This week Williamson spoke to ILSR about the project and why a town-wide fiber network is such valuable and vital infrastructure.
“Timnath is an interesting place. We are predominantly a residential community and we are growing quickly,” he said, adding that in a post-pandemic world of distance learning, remote work, and telehealth, an important part of the mix when people decide where to live and work is whether that community has reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access.
Each year since its creation in 2017, the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) has convened those working on the frontlines of Tribal connectivity. It brings together decision makers and stakeholders to build support for digital sovereignty and quality, affordable connectivity for Indigenous communities.
With less than 60 percent of those living on Tribal lands in the lower 48 states having access to basic broadband connections – as Native Nations have regularly been excluded from policy conversations around these issues – ICS has become an important voice as the federal government is finally investing billions of dollars to expand high-speed Internet access across Indian Country.
The Summit, held this year in Anchorage, Alaska, was hosted by the Indigenous Connectivity Institute, an affiliate of Connect Humanity, an organization that supports underserved communities’ pursuit of better Internet access and enhancing digital skills. The Summit has become the most prominent event of its type in North America.
Summit participants don’t just convene and talk. They also agree on a series of calls-to-action for governments and other entities with an eye on promoting digital equity in Indigenous communities. Last year’s calls to action, which included messaging around inclusive Tribal consultation, government and industry accountability, Indigenous spectrum rights, and workforce development, served as the foundation for this year’s focus.
Decorah, Iowa is moving forward on a long-percolating plan to expand the city’s core fiber ring to provide affordable broadband access to long-neglected residents and businesses.
While the project has been discussed for years, local officials tell ISLR the project gained renewed momentum during peak COVID, and is creeping closer to launch.
Contracts are still being finalized as the city hopes to spend somewhere around $12 to $15 million to deliver fiber to all 3,000 potential subscriber locations. The full project would take about three years to deliver fiber to all 7,740 city residents, with the first subscribers potentially coming online this fall.
“Decorah has been in pursuit of fiber to the premises for the last 8 to 9 plus years and we finally have broken through some of our challenges on how to get to the finish line,” Chopper Albert, Decorah IT Director told ISLR.
According to Albert, Decorah’s recent progress is thanks in part to new City Manager Travis Goedken, who has long advocated for expanding the city’s existing fiber network to drive affordable fiber access citywide.
New City Management Team Pushes Forward
Since 2013 the city has owned an 11-mile core fiber network, dubbed the Decorah MetroNet. MetroNet was born out of frustration after a major flood in 2008 across much of Iowa resulted in prolonged communications network outages.
MetroNet (not to be confused with the Indiana-based ISP that goes by the same name) currently provides access to Luther College and 18 additional government buildings and anchor institutions.
For over 20 years, the city of Palo Alto, the "Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” has flirted with the idea of building a city-owned municipal fiber network. Now after years of debate, numerous studies, several false starts, and many unfulfilled RFPs, city officials say they’re finally moving forward with a city-owned fiber network they hope will transform affordable broadband connectivity citywide.
Palo Alto officials tell ILSR that the project will be spearheaded by the city-utility, and deployed in coordination with a major upgrade of the city’s electrical systems. Phase One of the city’s planned fiber deployment should begin later this year, delivering fiber access to around 20 percent of the city–or 6,500 homes and businesses.
Phase One will be funded entirely from the utility’s existing cash reserves. Profits from that deployment will then be used to expand affordable, multi-gigabit fiber access to all of the city’s 63,210 residents. Though no shortage of challenges remain.
A Long Time Coming
That Palo Alto residents have been clamoring for better, more affordable alternatives to regional telecom monopolies for 25 straight years speaks for itself. The high costs, slow speeds, and abysmal customer service of regional telecom giants AT&T and Comcast have long driven the public’s unflagging interest in better, cheaper connectivity options.