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A Layered Approach to Universal Access in Virginia - Episode 530 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Tamarah Holmes, Director at the Office of Broadband at Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Virginia is ahead of the game compared to a lot of the states in terms of its planning and proactive work with providers to achieve universal access in historically unserved and underserved areas. Tamarah talks with Christopher about how the state has done this, from working directly with providers on regional approaches, to layering grants to address high-cost areas, to mapmaking and database design.
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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.
In the heart of Maryland's Eastern Shore – a place Forbes Magazine considers one of the “Top 5 Coolest Towns to Buy A Vacation Home” – a fiber-to-the-home project is making the region an even cooler place to live.
Building on its historical allure and 600 miles of Chesapeake Bay waterfront views, state, county and local utility officials are making a multimillion-dollar investment to transform Talbot County’s half dozen towns (and a handful of other unincorporated communities) 40 miles east of Annapolis into a far more attractive place to live, work, and play. To do that, they are relying on Easton Utilities, the county’s seat long-standing municipal utility, to expand high-speed Internet access into the most rural reaches of the region.
In March, the Talbot County Council unanimously approved allocating $1.75 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to help bring fiber Internet connectivity to the hardest-to-reach parts of the county. That funding comes on the heels of Easton Utilities being awarded federal and state grant funds totaling $26 million, with the bulk of that going toward a fiber network expansion project known as Connect Talbot, while a portion is being used to upgrade its existing hybrid fiber-coax system.
With construction crews now working to extend Easton Utilities fiber backbone further out into the county, the utilities’ subsidiary – Easton Velocity – is already offering service to over 100 new subscribers.
Freshly proposed legislation in Missouri would prohibit towns and cities from using federal funds to improve broadband access in areas telecom monopolies already claim to serve. It’s just the latest attempt by incumbent telecom giants to ensure that an historic wave of federal broadband funding won’t harm their revenues by boosting local broadband competition.
Missouri SB 1074 - Sponsored by Sen. Dan Hegeman (R., District 12), proclaims that “no federal funds received by the state, political subdivision, city, town, or village shall be expended for the construction of retail broadband internet infrastructure unless the project to be constructed is located in an unserved area or underserved area.” It passed the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee on April 13th.
According to the bill, the Missouri Office of Broadband Infrastructure would certify the project prior to a political subdivision receiving authorization. Before being authorized, the office would be mandated to check with incumbent broadband providers to ensure that they don’t offer service in the specified area.
The bill prohibits federal funding for any projects in areas where a single provider already receives funding to deliver 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds. If it passes, it also allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to submit written challenges to grant applicants within 45 days. The Department of Economic Development would then be tasked with determining the truthfulness of each challenge.
Only if applicants can prove they’re servicing an “unserved” or “underserved” area (which again is defined by flawed FCC Form 477 data that routinely overstates existing coverage and speeds using broadband definitions set at ankle height) will the applications be deemed valid.
But the bill gives incumbent monopolies even greater leverage in the challenge process, by letting them challenge a deployment if an incumbent ISP has “taken affirmative steps to begin the process of construction to provide broadband,” or “has been designated funding through federal programs to support the deployment of broadband” in the targeted areas.
With nearly 65,000 households unable to connect to the Internet at basic broadband speeds of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps), municipalities across the Green Mountain State have risen to the fore in formulating creative models for addressing the tens of thousands of homes without broadband access. Iterating on the EC Fiber (with roots back to the early 2000s), joint, municipally led projects have led to the creation of a total of nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) at present, which places community-owned broadband at the forefront in Vermont.
What’s equally exciting is that the state has likewise stepped up, calling the CUDs the primary avenue by which it will solve the state’s connectivity crisis, and funneling at least $116 million in their direction in the next handful of years, with much of this spending dedicated to CUDs. To date, nearly 85 percent of Vermont’s municipalities and 90 percent of its underserved locations fall within a CUD.
Across the Commonwealth of Virginia, local governments, county broadband authorities, cooperatives, and private Internet Service Providers are leveraging the influx of American Rescue Plan funds to reach the state’s goal of achieving universal access to high-speed Internet connectivity by 2024.
With $850 million in state appropriations for broadband connectivity and $1.15 billion in local government and private service providers’ funding matches, the state is on track to invest $2 billion dollars toward broadband expansion in the coming years, and is currently investing in broadband expansion projects at record levels.
In August, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia State Legislature agreed to devote $700 million of the state’s $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to expand access to broadband. The $850 million investment the state has announced will consist mostly of American Rescue Plan aid. The funds will be administered by the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which distributes grants to public-private partnerships to extend broadband service to unserved regions of the state, or areas that lack access to Internet service delivering connection speeds of at least 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps).
Public-Private Partnerships Deep in the Heart of Virginia
From the marsh grasslands making up Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across the three peninsulas carved out by the Chesapeake Bay, all the way to the Shenandoah Valley in the West, a diverse array of regional partnerships have formed between Virginia’s local governments, electric and telephone cooperatives, and private ISPs as broadband expansion efforts continue to advance in 2022.
This past Friday Congress finally passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation includes $65 billion to boost high-speed Internet connectivity – “the largest (federal) investment in broadband deployment ever,” as noted by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. This is an historic piece of legislation that includes many of the things we wanted to see in it and we believe it will significantly help solve broadband challenges for many who have not yet been well connected.
There are two major buckets of broadband money that will be made available to states and tribal governments: $42.5 billion for the deployment of infrastructure, which will be mostly aimed at rural communities, with the rest going toward digital inclusion efforts.
While we have not yet gone through the final version with a fine-toothed comb, the broadband portion of the infrastructure bill appears to be identical to what was in the bipartisan Senate version of the bill, which we previously wrote about here.
Rural America Biggest Beneficiary
The $42.5 billion portion of the bill will be allocated to the States in the form of block grants under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which will be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
The U.S. Department of Treasury, tasked with writing the rules on how state and local governments can spend various federal relief funds made available for broadband expansion by the American Rescue Plan, recently released the guidelines [pdf] governing the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) — a $10 billion pot of money available to states, territories, and Tribal governments [pdf] to confront the need for improved Internet connectivity exposed during the pandemic.
Compared to when Treasury released rules governing the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds earlier this year, this go ‘round brought cheers instead of jeers from community broadband advocates, as we are seeing federal broadband policy break new ground.
The flexibility the Capital Projects Fund gives state and local governments to decide how to spend the relief funds is what broadband advocates are most excited about. CPF applicants are able to use the money in creative ways to respond to critical needs in their community laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, as long as the resulting project directly enables remote work, education, and health monitoring.
Fiber-to-the-home service is on its way to three counties in Southeast Georgia. In July, the Midway-based Coastal Electric Cooperative and Darien Communications – a family owned telephone, cable TV, and Internet Service Provider – announced they were teaming up to build a $40 million fiber network. Once the initial network is up and running, 16,000 homes and businesses in the counties of Bryan, Liberty, and Long will have access to high-speed Internet service.
The partnership has given birth to a new co-op entity with Coastal Electric known as Coastal Fiber Inc., which will lease the infrastructure and begin offering retail broadband service as early as January 2022. Construction began this summer with phase one of the project slated to be rolled out over the next four years.
The new partnership will first target 9,800 homes in Bryan County, 6,200 in Liberty County, and 500 in Long County.
Phase 1 Focuses on Underserved County Residents
“The first phase goal is for customers in Liberty County to begin seeing availability in January 2022. The system will be built out in phases from that point with the total buildout by 2030. The service to Bryan and Long counties will be as we build out in phases. No dates for Bryan and Long have been determined yet,” Coastal Electric Communication Coordinator Bethany Akridge told the Savannah Morning News.
“The service in Bryan County, for example, depends on where you live. There is broadband available in the more populated areas because it is more profitable for companies,” Akridge said. “The reason the cooperative is involved is because there is a need, so we are stepping in to fill that need where those areas are not served or underserved.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio Soliciting Sustainable Internet Access and Digital Inclusion Solutions with RFP Due Sep 8th
Cuyahoga County, Ohio (pop. 1.23 million), encompassing Cleveland and the surrounding area along the bottom edge of Lake Erie, has released a new Request for Proposals (RFP) as part of its ongoing effort to "expand affordable, high-speed broadband services to those lacking Internet access." Sustainable solutions are the focus of the RFP, with particular emphasis given to economically disadvantaged communities and approaches that can not only offer low-cost or free options but convince households to sign up for service.
Proposals are due September 8th at 11am ET.
The RFP is just the latest effort as part of the Office of Innovation and Performance's effort to closing the digital divide in the city and surrounding area. It notes that:
Cuyahoga County is one of the worst-connected communities in the U.S., with 19 percent of households in the County without any type of Internet service, including mobile data plans. About 32 percent of households in the County do not have a broadband connection at home, and 69 percent of these households have annual incomes below $35,000.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed Internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate yesterday. The full text of the bill, posted on U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema’s (D-Arizona) website, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.
For those of us who favor local Internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Let’s start with …
Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the states to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the FCC for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.
In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”
And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”