BEAD

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Martinsville, Virginia To Finally Take Full Advantage Of Decades-Old Muni Fiber Network

Martinsville, Virginia has technically owned a municipal fiber network for the better part of a generation. But the city never had the time, resources, or interest in maximizing the Municipal Internet Network’s (MINet) full potential until COVID demonstrated the importance of affordable access and federal broadband grants made expansion a viable reality.

At a Martinsville city council meeting on February 13, the council offered unanimous support for a phased expansion of the city’s fiber network.

What exactly the expansion will look like, and how it will be funded, very much remain a work in progress.

The core MINet fiber network originally consisted of 48 strands and 20 miles of fiber connecting city schools, municipal buildings, local businesses, and key anchor institutions. A 2009 estimate indicates the network has saved the city between $100,000 and $150,000 annually on telecom lease agreements every year since its inception.

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Martinsville map

Despite having been first constructed in the 1990s, Martinsville’s MINet only has about 376 customers (98 of them being residential) in a city of nearly 14,000 residents. There’s roughly 20 users currently on a multi-month waiting list, eager to get access to affordable fiber at speeds up to a gigabit per second (Gbps).

Mike Scaffidi has been the MINet director for 26 years. He tells ILSR that while the city has contemplated network expansion for a long time, the city never had the staff or resources to prioritize the expansion or marketing of the city-owned fiber network.

Municipal Broadband in Colorado Big Winners In Latest Wave Of State Grants

Colorado has long been home to some of the most innovative municipal broadband projects in the country. That trend has only accelerated with last year’s voter-approved elimination of municipal broadband restrictions, and it’s now being buoyed by a massive new wave of state grants that should further expand affordable broadband to long-neglected parts of the state.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently announced the first of multiple broadband investments using stimulus funding from the U.S. Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund (CPF) program. The CPF is funded by $10 billion made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and is a key part of the state’s goal to bring affordable broadband to 99 percent of Colorado residents by 2027.

According to the Governor’s office, the state just authorized $113 million in CPF funds on 13 projects that will bring fiber service to nearly 19,000 homes and businesses across Colorado. State officials say the funding will be heavily focused on projects in the South and Southwest portion of the Centennial State, where connectivity needs are greatest.

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Colorado State Seal

The Colorado Broadband Office says it received 112 applications asking for more than $642 million in broadband funding across the state–five times greater than the allotted awards.

ECFiber S&P Bond Rating Shines Light on How Municipal Broadband Builds Can Save On Borrowing Costs

Municipal finance is not for the weary.

But for the wise – at least according to the number-crunchers enmeshed in that world – one particular sliver of municipal finance (issuing bonds) has long been a viable way for local communities to finance the construction of municipal broadband networks. And as one Communication Union District in Vermont has discovered, bonding is better – when it’s rated.

Shining a light on bond-backed municipal broadband projects is the recent announcement that ECFiber, Vermont's first Communications Union District (CUD), obtained a BB rating from Standard & Poor Global, the nation’s preeminent credit rating agency. The rating will allow ECFiber to pay lower borrowing costs to complete a network expansion project.

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“This is a historic moment,” Stan Williams, ECFiber’s municipal finance advisor said in a prepared statement. “For the first time, a CUD will be issuing a rated bond, which means that many more investors will be competing to buy those bonds, lowering the interest rate. ECFiber has been managed for its entire existence to reach this goal. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this achievement.”

East Central Vermont Telecommunications District governing board chairman F. X. Flinn added that the new bond rating "was made possible by over 16 years of grass-roots persistence, driven by a conviction that working together, our region could overcome the failure of the marketplace to offer decent broadband to all our homes and businesses."

NEK Broadband Expands Access To Affordable Fiber In Rural Vermont

NEK Broadband continues to bring affordable fiber access to the long-neglected corners of the Green Mountain State. According to the latest update by NEK Broadband, a recently completed rollout has delivered affordable fiber access to 700 new addresses across multiple rural Vermont communities.

NEK Broadband is one of nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) scattered across the state of Vermont. NEK Broadband alone represents 45 Vermont communities across Caledonia, Essex, Orleans and Lamoille Counties in the northeast part of the state (see the full list of communities here).

The CUD’s latest expansion plan primarily focused on bringing fiber access to parts of Danville, Kirby, Lyndon, St. Johnsbury, Walden and Wheelock, Vermont. With this latest expansion, NEK Broadband now provides fiber access to 2,100 predominantly rural Vermont residents in total, many of which only received broadband for the first time last year.

“We’re so pleased to end 2023 by giving more residents of the NEK access to high-speed internet,” Christa Shute, NEK Broadband’s Executive Director, said in a prepared statement. “We plan to bring even more residents online in early 2024.”

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NEK Broadband hanging fiber

The CUD currently provides upgraded users with access to speeds that exceed those provided by cable and DSL providers, even in many more urban markets.

NEK Broadband currently offers four tiers of broadband service: symmetrical 50 megabit per second (Mbps) service for $80 a month; symmetrical 250 Mbps service for $103 a month; symmetrical 500 Mbps service for $135 a month; and a symmetrical gigabit per second (Gbps) offering for $250 a month.

Louisiana and Virginia Maps Give Window Into First BEAD State Challenge Processes

In the quest to unlock billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure money, Louisiana and Virginia have outpaced all other states in the speed with which they are dispatching the BEAD program’s requirements. Louisiana was the first to complete the challenge process and is still the only state to have received approval for Volume 2 of its initial proposal. Virginia, meanwhile, has completed their challenge process but now appears locked in a battle with the NTIA over the low-cost plan parameters they intend to set. 

Information is trickling out about the challenge process in both states. We know that Louisiana received a reported 110,00 challenges and Virginia even more, counting 130,000 before the challenge window had even closed. It will be interesting to learn about challengers’ experience with the process, particularly for those nonprofits and local governments which have less experience with broadband mapping and data reporting. In the meantime, the states’ mandatory challenge process disclosures can give us some preliminary insight into how the challenge process is being used.

Two Maps Show Current Status of Challenge Process

NTIA guidance stipulated some transparency requirements for the post-challenge process that we are now beginning to see play out. Louisiana's and Virginia’s maps now show data on the challenges made during the process - who challenged the designation, what type of challenge they made, and, if available, the results of the adjudication process. (NTIA guidance requires “a summary of the challenge” and “a summary of the rebuttal,” which suggests slightly more detail than the maps provide.)

New York Launches Municipal Infrastructure Program

Yesterday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $228 million infusion of federal funds the Empire State will earmark for its recently established Municipal Infrastructure Program (MIP).

Created as part of New York’s billion dollar ConnectALL Initiative, the MIP is specifically designed to support municipal broadband projects, which have shown to be a viable, and increasingly popular, way to bring affordable, high-quality Internet service to an entire community.

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NY Gov. Kathy Hochul

New York is a notable exception to what most other states are doing as those states prepare to funnel the lion’s share of its federal broadband funds to the big incumbent providers with scant, if any, support for publicly-owned broadband projects. In New York – similar to states like Maine, Vermont, and California – state leaders are devoting a significant chunk of federal funds, all $228 million of its recent disbursement of Capital Projects Funds, to build publicly-owned, open access networks.

“Broadband infrastructure in the Municipal Infrastructure Program will be owned by a public entity or publicly controlled, and Internet Service Providers will use the new broadband infrastructure to provide New Yorkers with affordable, high quality service options,” the press announcement said.

Los Alamos County, New Mexico Issues RFP For Community Fiber Network

Los Alamos County, New Mexico joins the growing list of municipalities looking to explore a community-owned broadband network in a bid to improve resident access to fast, affordable, next-generation fiber.

The request for proposal (RFP), originally issued August 13, called for design, planning, and construction partners for a locally-owned and operated fiber network. An updated RFP was issued on December 12, 2023 stating that applications for phase two of their planned project were deemed “incomplete.” The county has given potential partners until January 12 to respond.

“The county team is now reviewing the submitted proposals,” the county states. “Once one is selected and an agreement finalized, the county will request the council award a contract. This may occur in early 2024.”

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Los Alamos Emergency Op Ctr

The RFPs come after county council leaders passed a motion last January declaring “…that high-quality reliable telecommunication including broadband is an essential service.” Los Alamos County officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment asking for more detail on the county’s goals. Local outlets suggest more details should emerge in 2024.

New Mexico is poised to receive more than $635 million in broadband subsidies courtesy of the Broadband Equity Access and Development (BEAD) program, made possible in turn by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Predictions for 2024 - Episode 585 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

The fading sound of holiday bells and soft stillness that comes with plunging temps can only mean one thing; it's January again, which means it's time to break out the crystal ball and have a conversation about the year to come. Joining Christopher in the recording booth are a slew of CBN staffers new and veteran to join in the collective task of putting words to feelings both foreboding and optimistic about the year to come.

Will we see the first BEAD-connected home this year? Will the Affordabel Connectivity Program get re-funded? How will the maps look in 11 more months, with slews of challenge data? How many new municipal ftth networks will we see founded in 2024? State preemption laws rolled back, or re-introduced? Tune in for answers to all these and more.

This show is 48 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 or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Waterloo Fiber Launches Trial Ahead Of February Commercial Launch

Waterloo, Iowa’s municipal broadband project has taken a major step forward after nearly two decades of planning.

Waterloo Fiber officials just launched their first limited fiber trial, will connect their first commercial customers in February, and are on target to deploy affordable fiber at speeds up to 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) to every last city resident by 2026.

When we last checked in with Waterloo in February of last year, the city was putting the finishing touches on a plan to spend $115 million to build a fiber backbone accessible to all 67,695 Waterloo residents, after locals approved the city issuing general obligation bonds to fund the start of the three-phase construction project.

Construction of the network began last summer at a groundbreaking ceremony hosted by Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.

“It will be the lifeline that connects our entire community, enabling businesses to thrive, students to excel and families to stay connected," Hart told attendees. "This fiber system will lay the foundation for a smart city innovation, economic growth and an enhanced quality of life for all our residents."

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Waterloo fiber first family subcsriber

Last month the city connected the first of four participants in a limited pilot project.

FCC and Broadband Providers Prepare for ACP Wind Down

As digital inclusion practitioners and broadband-for-all advocates continue to push Congress to save the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), 22.5 million Americans now enrolled in the program are weeks away from being officially notified of its pending termination as ACP funds are on track to be depleted by the end of April.

The looming demise of the ACP – which provides income-eligible households with a $30 monthly voucher to pay for pricey Internet service bills ($75/month for Tribal citizens living on reservations) – comes at a crucial moment in the rollout of the “Internet For All” initiative. All 56 States and U.S. territories are poised to receive nearly $45 billion in broadband expansion funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law over the next year.

Separate from the BEAD program and Digital Equity Act funding, the bipartisan infrastructure law also established the ACP with a $14.2 billion allocation. At current enrollment rates, the program disburses about $650 million per month to Internet service providers (ISPs).