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Spurred by Covid-19, Colville Tribes Expand Free Wireless Service in Washington State

Last year, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State were one of 327 Native Nations to receive wireless spectrum as part of the FCC’s Rural Tribal Window program. Since then, tribal leaders have put that spectrum to use by offering free wireless services that have proven to be a lifesaver during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Rural Tribal Window program offered tribal access to one 49.5 megahertz channel, one 50.5 megahertz channel, and one 17.5 megahertz channel in the 2.5 Ghz band. Tribal applicants could apply for one, two, or all three of the channels, depending on availability.

Building Community Capacity

The Colville tribes say the spectrum allowed them to bring connectivity to 80 percent of the reservation in two phases. The already-completed Phase One brought access to the communities near Keller, Washington, while Phase Two will bring access to the remaining communities by 2026. 

“COVID was a shock to everyone, and it became obvious as time went on that there were a lot of kids who had no access to the Internet or devices to connect with,”  Andrew Joseph Jr., Chairman of the Colville Tribal Council, told ILSR. “With school going to virtual learning, and the importance of the Internet generally in this day and age, it was necessary to ensure that something be done to make the Internet accessible.”

In addition to the wireless network plan, the tribes are also stringing fiber along Highway 155 between Nespelem and Omak, Washington. Cumulatively, the projects hope to finally bring access to long-neglected areas, many of which aren’t particularly remote yet have been historically neglected by regional monopolies. 

“There are temporary networks in all four districts now,” Joseph said of the project’s progress. “There is not a hard count of all connections. The Tribes have grant applications pending to help fund the next step in the project plan, which includes the need to bring Internet access to more and remote areas, as well as laying down the building blocks for additional opportunities in the future.”

Searching for Permanent Solutions

BrightRidge Charges Ahead with Connecting Communities in Tennessee

<p>Located in the most northeastern part of Tennessee, BrightRidge has served as Johnson City’s public power utility for nearly 80 years. About a decade ago, BrightRidge stepped into the broadband space, and has since been taking serious strides to connect Johnson City residents and surrounding communities.&nbsp;</p><p><a href="https://muninetworks.org/content/brightridge-creating-10-gig-communitie… we left off with BrightRidge in 2019</a>, the utility was about to start into the first three phases of a fiber buildout to provide 3,847 homes and 373 businesses with broadband access. Since then, <a href="https://www.heraldandtribune.com/local-news/brightridge-continues-broad… and local funding</a> as well as utility investments have allowed BrightRidge to reach thousands of residents in the area.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p>Back in 2009 is when Johnson City, Tennessee began thinking about a possible fiber buildout. Since then, the city of 67,000 has considered a number of approaches, eventually landing on building out a hybrid (fiber and fixed wireless) network and serving as a publicly owned broadband utility to bring Internet access to residents. Known today as BrightRidge Broadband, the utility offers symmetric speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (for $149/month) in Johnson City and nearby communities.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p>Originally slated to be complete in 2026, demand and success in rolling out the infrastructure has led the utility to speed up its deployment plans.

Altamaha EMC Brings Fiber to The Farmlands of Rural Georgia

Known for decades as the "Sweet Onion Capital of the World," tourists are still drawn to the rural farmlands of Toombs County in east central Georgia for the annual Vidalia Onion Festival.

But in early November 2021, officials from the member-owned electric cooperative Altamaha Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), flanked by an assortment of state and local officials, gathered at the sprawling L.G. Herndon Farms to announce the cultivation of a new venture. Through its newly created subsidiary Altamaha Fiber, the 86-year-old cooperative recently started construction of a fiber-to-the-home network to serve its 14,000 members who live in Toombs County and in the six neighboring counties (Emanuel, Johnson, Laurens, Montgomery, Tattnall, and Treutlen).

A 5,000-acre spread where they grow Vidalia onions, greens, soybeans, and corn (with over 1,600 cattle and a trucking company on the property), L.G. Herndon Farms was chosen as the site to make the announcement because the farm also happened to be the first business test customer for Altamaha Fiber.

Fiber-to-this-farm will allow for precision agriculture. And, as reported by The Advance, Phil Proctor, the engineer overseeing network construction, noted an added benefit, especially in an area that prizes college football in the ACC: “The lines coming into this building would allow owner Bo Herndon to live stream the Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech football game in vivid 4k resolution.”

Beyond the Herndon farm, Georgia Public Service Commissioner Jason Shaw spoke of the far ranging benefits of broadband for the region:

Geography is Everything - Episode 490 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Bob Marshall, General Manager of the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative and the Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications Company. During the conversation, the two discuss Bob’s love for the cooperative movement, how Plumas-Sierra relies on fixed wireless, cable and fiber to service their rural terrain, and how they are using a $23 million grant from CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) to build out broadband service in challenging areas. Christopher and Bob also talk about the recovery role broadband infrastructure will play following last summer’s Dixie Fire, and how fire-prone communities might use satellite backhauls in case of emergencies.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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.

FCC Commissioner Carr Gets It Wrong in Treasury Rule Comments

With all due respect to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, his reaction to the Rescue Plan Act's State & Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is way off base. As I wrote last week, the rules for broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing down decision-making to the local level where people actually have the information to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson recently also responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.) 

The Final Rule from the Treasury Department gives broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend some of the SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The earlier draft of rules made it more complicated for networks built to address urban affordability challenges.

However, in coming out against the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr is giving voice to the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after collecting evidence of need, make broadband investments even in areas where those companies may be selling services already. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he has been reduced to chirping from the sidelines on this issue because the previous FCC, under his party’s leadership, so badly bungled broadband subsidies in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that Congress decide NTIA should administer these funds and have the state distribute them. 

Nonetheless, the issues that Commissioner Carr raised are common talking points inside the Beltway and we feel that they need to be addressed. 

Background Note

The failure of the FCC to assemble an accurate data collection is many years in the making. No single presidential administration can take the full blame for it, but each of them could have corrected it. 

President Biden’s FCC is not yet fully assembled because of delays in appointment and in Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it is not clear that we are on a course for having better maps and data that will resolve these problems anytime soon.

Commissioner Carr’s Criticism 

RDOF Funding Propels a Local Electric Cooperative to Extend Connectivity in Rural Missouri

Electric cooperatives illustrate the power that community-owned enterprises have to bring Internet access at scale to unconnected rural communities. Because of their work, states like Missouri (where 15 percent of all households only have access to broadband speeds slower than 100/20 Megabits per second, and only 38 percent have access to speeds of 100/100 Megabits per second or faster), will go from being among the least-connected states to one of those with the greatest connectivity in rural areas in coming years. 

An infusion of federal funding shows how publicly owned infrastructure can go farther and move faster. Ralls County Electric Cooperative (RCEC) serves as example in Missouri, building on its existing broadband infrastructure to further increase connectivity in one of the most connected counties in the state.

Closing the Gap

Ralls County, located in the northeastern part of the state, is one of three statewide to provide fiber or wireless Internet access to over 90 percent of residents in its service territory. With $1.3 million in funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) now in hand, RCEC is extending broadband access outside of its electric service area.  

RCEC’s initial fiber buildout began in 2010. By 2014, it was the first electric distribution cooperative in Missouri to have built fiber out to all 6,300 of its members. 70 percent of RCEC’s members currently subscribe to its fiber services. Through its wholly owned subsidiary, the cooperative offers five speed tiers. Speeds range from 50/10 Megabits per second for $50/month to 1 Gbps/15 Mbps for $100/month in select locations. 

Reaching Beyond its Electric Membership Footprint

It’s Not a Rural Broadband Challenge, It’s a Statewide Broadband Challenge - Episode 489 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Matt Schmit, Director of the Illinois Office of Broadband and Chair of Illinois Broadband Advisory Council. During the conversation, the two discuss Illinois’ $420 million investment in broadband infrastructure as part of the Connect Illinois Broadband Grant program, the challenges in and solutions to both rural and urban settings, and how the Illinois Connected Communities program has helped at all stages of the process. Christopher and Matt also talk about state goals with the new federal money on the way, and the innovation in models, financing, and deployment we’re likely to see with the influx of spending in the near future.

This show is 46 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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.

Sprout Fiber Takes Root in Rural Alabama

In June of 2020, Cullman Electric Cooperative launched Sprout Fiber Internet, a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network to bring broadband access to its members in rural Alabama. Sprout Fiber has taken significant strides since then, connecting its 1,300th subscriber in October of 2021.   

By July of 2020, Sprout Fiber had started the first phase of network construction, with plans to connect 25 percent of Cullman’s membership – or 12,000 households – by spring of 2022. Sprout’s first customer was connected in January 2021. By the following September, Sprout was serving “over 1,000 broadband customers and handling about 12 activations per day,” with a little under half of its Phase I deployment finished. This puts its take rate around 20 percent in less than a year. By November, Sprout Fiber had completed a fiber ring backbone to connect its offices and substations.

Expanding Access and Choices

Local competition includes AT&T and Charter Spectrum, which offer service to the town of Cullman itself but not to its surrounding areas. Several wireless and satellite providers also offer service locally. There is significant demand for Sprout Fiber’s service, however, including from members in gap areas that don’t have other options for high-speed Internet access. According to Sprout Fiber, “twenty-five percent of [its] service territory still does not have any access to [the] Internet, and other areas do not have access to a quality Internet connection.”  

Guided by member demand and targeting areas without existing robust broadband infrastructure, Sprout Fiber plans to expand broadband service into ten new areas and to 9,000 additional members in 2022 (see map below, with green areas live right now, with pink scheduled to go live early in 2022 and purple to follow thereafter. For a high-resolution version of the map, click here). Cullman Electric CEO Tim Culpepper told members: 

A Local Coalition Gets Organized to Bring Quality Connectivity to Maine’s Midcoast

Five small towns in rural Maine are connecting with one another in a steady grassroots effort to expand broadband access in the Midcoast. After conducting a survey which affirmed the towns’ acute need for better connectivity, a local coalition is navigating state funding and weighing network options. 

In Waldo County, a collection of local officials and community volunteers have formed the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition (SWCBC) to organize efforts to bring broadband to five towns in rural Maine, clustered about 30 miles east of Augusta. Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont combined have only 3,300 houses along 340 miles of road. The need for better Internet access became particularly visible during the pandemic, as local officials tried to convene online for Selectmen’s meetings. Two selectpersons from neighboring towns connected over this shared need for access, and the coalition grew from there. 

RiverNet Feeds Three South Carolina Counties Hungry for Broadband

Pageland, South Carolina, a small rural town in Chesterfield County, is known for its watermelon. The town once billed itself as the “Watermelon Capital of the World” and still hosts an annual Watermelon Festival every summer that draws thousands of visitors each year. But these days something different is growing off the vine out of Pageland that is rejuvenating the region.

Spanning three rural counties in the north-central part of the state, the Lynches River Electric Cooperative (LREC) – a member-owned cooperative headquartered in Pageland – announced a partnership with North Carolina-based Fiber Optic Solutions in January of 2020 on the start of construction for a fiber-to-the-home network. Through its wholly-owned subsidiary RiverNet Connect, the “goal is to provide world-class Internet [access] to every house, on every dirt road that wants it and we won’t stop until we’ve done just that.”

High Speed Construction and Service

Having already deployed fiber to connect its electric substations, in June of 2019 LREC surveyed its members to gauge whether they wanted the co-op to extend the network and begin offering high-speed Internet service. Over 5,000 members responded to the survey indicating they were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea.

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Two months later, the LREC Board of Trustees voted unanimously to bring fiber Internet service in phases to its members living in Chesterfield, Kershaw, and Lancaster counties. That was followed by an announcement in October of 2019 at LREC’s annual membership meeting that the co-op had created RiverNet Connect.