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More than Just a Coupon: The ACP Could Promote Infrastructure Investment in Low-Income and Rural Communities
As digital equity advocates push Congress to replenish the rapidly diminishing funds that support the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a recently published report should help bolster the case that the program – which subsidizes the cost of monthly Internet service for income-eligible households – won’t just help more Americans get broadband access, it can also incent Internet service providers (ISPs) to make infrastructure investments in unserved and underserved areas.
The report, titled "Closing the Digital Divide Benefits Everyone, Not Just the Disconnected" – published by Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) – emphasizes the benefits of universal Internet access across education, health care, government services, and employment. It makes the case that universal connectivity would allow institutions to “integrate Internet-based technologies into their services, improving them for the benefit of all.”
Most notably, the report advocates for increased ACP enrollment, arguing that in addition to providing low-income households some short-term relief from pricey Internet bills, the program can provide an economic incentive for ISPs to invest in unserved and underserved communities by increasing the return on investment (ROI) in areas that have previously been considered unprofitable.
Ponca City, Oklahoma officials say they’ve completed construction of a citywide fiber broadband network both ahead of schedule and under budget.
The finished network is now providing affordable, uncapped, multi-gigabit fiber access to every local resident in the community or 24,100 residents of Northern Oklahoma city.
In 1996, Ponca City began developing a 140 mile central fiber network to help connect schools, city offices, and other key anchor institutions. The city’s infrastructure was expanded in 2005 to provide access to local businesses, and again in 2007 when the city began providing local access to a citywide Wi-Fi system at no cost to local residents.
Frustrated with substandard service from regional telecom monopolies, in 2014 city officials began seriously talking about building a citywide fiber network. By 2015, officials had begun gauging local interest and found that 85 percent of residents were frustrated with existing service, and overwhelmingly supported the city’s plan to build something better.
That same year officials began network planning and studying other projects in earnest.
“Collectively we studied more than 2 dozen successful projects and 13 failed ones to learn from those experiences,” Dave Williams, Director of Technology Services for Ponca City said at the time. “We visited other cities that have implemented broadband solutions, read countless research articles detailing the challenges and rewards of such projects, and systematically took every aspect of this project apart and looked at it to develop a plan addressing all the potential problem areas the best we possibly could.”
‘Business is Booming’
Eight years later and those efforts are now paying off for Ponca City residents.
Join us Wednesday, July 12th at 4pm ET for the latest episode of the Connect This! Show.
Co-hosts Christopher Mitchell (ILSR) and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) will be joined by regular guests Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting) and Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber) to talk about all the recent broadband news that's fit to print – and probably a few things not fit for print but worth discussing anyways.
The interactive livestream is always chock full of humorous observations and insightful broadband commentary, including previous episodes that remain relevant as states and communities are putting together their digital equity plans and gearing up for federal BEAD funds to build new broadband networks.
Back in December Christopher recalled how things went when Uncle Sam doled out federal infrastructure dollars in 2009. There's lots of excitement (and rightly so) around the recent announcement of how much each state and U.S. territory will get from the $42.5 billion BEAD program. However, this short clip (below) from Episode 60 is a good reminder that this time around we ought to take what the big telecom and cable companies say with a huge grain of salt so we don’t blow this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand broadband access only to have taxpayer watchdog groups railing years from now about wasteful government spending because we took the word of monopoly incumbents at face value.
Allegan County, Michigan will soon receive a $30 million state grant to finalize the deployment of a new open access, carrier-neutral fiber network. The end result will bring overdue competition – and affordable multi-gigabit fiber access – to long neglected communities by 2025.
The $30 million award is part of Michigan’s $238 million Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) grant program, made possible by 2021’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the resulting Capital Projects Fund.
123NET was chosen by Allegan County in late 2021 to help spearhead the Allegan County Broadband Project. The public-private partnership will bring access to more than 10,000 Allegan County residents either underserved or completely unserved by regional telecom giants, spread out across 1,000 square miles.
123NET and Allegan County had already committed to contributing $17.5 million for the construction of the network, with the county’s share coming from earlier ARPA awards.
"We are pleased to be selected as a recipient of the Michigan ROBIN Grant Funding. This recognition validates the hard work and dedication that both we and Allegan County have put into this Project,” Dan Irvin, CEO of 123NET said of the award. “We look forward to partnering with additional communities throughout Michigan in a combined effort to make this state the best connected on the planet."
It was a big week for ECFiber as Vermont’s first – and oldest – Communication Union District (CUD) celebrated lighting up the last hub of its 1,500 mile-network in White River Junction.
To mark the occasion of connecting the “golden patch cord” that will extend high-speed Internet service to eight more communities in the Upper Valley region, White River Junction’s VFW Hall was packed this past Tuesday with CUD officials, local and state leaders, enthusiastic residents, and U.S. Sen. Peter Welch. They were there to celebrate what ECFiber officials liken to “the Golden Spike moment tying the first transcontinental railroad together.”
After a 30-piece band played marching tunes, ECFiber Chairman F.X. Flinn marched to the podium to describe the meaning of the moment.
"It’s come to fruition today with a lighting of the White River Junction hub," he said. "This is the last piece of the puzzle for the network we originally envisioned that would bring world-class broadband to every home and business in the 23 member towns that originally voted town meeting day 2008 to create ECFiber."
Sen. Welch, an ECFiber subscriber who also spoke at the event, credited the state’s community broadband approach as the linchpin to solving the state’s digital divide:
“If we in rural Vermont were going to depend on the big telecommunication companies to wire our homes and get us Internet, we’d be waiting until our grandchildren had grandchildren. It wasn’t going to happen.”
Eight More Towns Join CUD
Lots of food-for-thought, with seasoned broadband bits, are served up on our Connect This! Show.
Apropos to yesterday’s BEAD allocation announcement, here’s a sample from Episode 72.
In that episode, ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative Director Christopher Mitchell and the livestream crew discuss whether federal policy disincentivizes new small broadband providers by setting up barriers to the historic amount of grant funds being made available, favoring the big incumbent providers and their entrenched regional monopolies.
You can watch the full episode below:
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback and ideas for the show.
Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) has begun construction on an ambitious new fiber deployment that will soon bring affordable, multi-gigabit fiber access to all of the cooperative’s existing electrical customers in rural Northern Florida.
Cooperative officials tell ILSR its three-phase build out is well underway, with a beta anticipated this summer and the first commercial customers connected by August. SVEC Communications Director Jon Little says the cooperative’s goal remains to deliver affordable fiber to all 20,000 of the cooperative's current electric customers by the end of 2026.
“We’ve broken our territory into three phases based partly on population or possible customers,” Little said.
The cooperative’s recently created subsidiary, Rapid Fiber Internet, will interface directly with subscribers, while Conexon manages deployment of more than 4,100 miles of fiber. Electrical users won’t see price hikes; the projected $93 million deployment cost will be funded by a combination of grants and loans paid back exclusively through user subscriptions.
Little told ISLR that make ready (preparing utility poles for fiber attachments) prep and engineering for phase one are complete, and make ready construction for phase one is roughly 40 percent complete. He added that primary fiber construction for phase one is roughly twenty percent complete.
“We’re hoping that we will have a group of beta customers starting next month,” Little said. “We want to go about a month to get their feedback, and so we’re still hoping sometime in August to offer hookups to our members on that first feeder.”
Today, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced how it will allocate $42.5 billion in BEAD funds to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five territories.
At an “Investing in America” event today at the White House, President Biden noted that this “biggest investment in high-speed Internet ever” was noteworthy “because for today’s economy to work for everyone, Internet access is just as important as electricity was, or water or other basic services.”
And in a press statement, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communication and Information Alan Davidson, who is overseeing the NTIA program, added: “This is a watershed moment for millions of people across America who lack access to a high-speed Internet connection. Access to Internet service is necessary for work, education, healthcare, and more. States can now plan their Internet access grant programs with confidence and engage with communities to ensure this money is spent where it is most needed.”
Our initial reaction is as follows:
"The BEAD allocations amount to the largest ever single federal investment to deploy needed Internet infrastructure across the United States. The question now is: how many states will maximize the moment and be inclusive of municipal broadband, public-private partnerships, and community-driven initiatives vs. those states who will simply dole out the funds to the big monopoly providers and hope for the best?”
Concerns are mounting that over $2.8 billion in potential broadband grants doled out by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could be wasted, further eroding the already well-criticized program’s disjointed effort to expand broadband access across rural America.
In 2019, the Ajit Pai FCC created the $20.4 billion RDOF with an eye on shoring up affordable broadband access in traditionally unserved rural U.S. markets. The money was to be doled out via reverse auction in several phases, with winners often declared based on having the maximum impact for minimum projected cost.
During phase one of the program, the FCC stated that 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations across 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. But of the $9.2 billion in winners, over $2.8 billion has gone into default, meaning the bidder couldn’t actually deliver on promised projects.
We've tracked the RDOF awards since the auction concluded, including for the providers that defaulted on their wins.
These issues have not only imperiled RDOF program funding, but have thrown a wrench in the works of numerous additional government efforts to shore up broadband access, from the FCC’s long-criticized quest to accurately map U.S. broadband access, to the implementation of newer grant programs overseen by other agencies.
In Wisconsin, Republican state lawmakers voted earlier this month to kill Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to invest $750 million of Wisconsin tax dollars to expand high-speed Internet infrastructure across the Badger State.
Republicans on the state legislature’s budget committee voted to reject the proposed broadband funds, arguing that the state should wait for Wisconsin’s forthcoming share of the $42.5 billion in federal BEAD funds instead.
Although the state has a record budget surplus projected at more than $7 billion, it’s the first time in the past decade the GOP-controlled state legislature has not allocated funds to expand broadband, which drew a blunt rebuke from Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback.
“It’s outrageous that Republicans have absolutely nothing to show for plans to actually address the pressing challenges facing our state — embarrassing doesn’t begin to cover it,” Cudaback told the Wisconsin State Journal.
The state is expecting to receive between $700 million and $1.1 billion in BEAD funds from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) with the state's Public Service Commission (PSC) estimating the total cost of deploying expanded broadband infrastructure statewide to be about $1.8 billion.