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Powering Up With BrightRidge in Johnson City, Tennessee - Episode 542 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Stacy Evans, Chief Broadband and Technology Officer at BrightRidge, the municipal network for Johnson City, Tennessee. When last we spoke, the electric utility-powered network had just passed its first dozen homes. Three and a half years later, the municipal network has passed more than 10,000 premises. It returns more than $5 million per year to local goverment via payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) (not to mention keeping electric prices low), and has driven both of the incumbent providers to increase speeds and lower prices. Christopher and Stacy talk about the value that's returned to the region, and how BrightRidge is only gaining steam - it's two years ahead of its build schedule, and using grants and Rescue Plan funds to reach thousands of households not accounted for in the original design, ensuring that as many people will get access to affordable, locally owned fiber as quickly as possible.
This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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.
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
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.
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.
A Community Guide to Federal Broadband Funding Opportunities
Update, 1/22/22: Common Sense Media has released an easy-to-read, comprehensive guide to federal broadband funding opportunities. Read it here.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress and the Biden Administration passed two federal stimulus relief packages with historic levels of funding for programs devoted to advancing digital equity – the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA).
In early August, legislators in the U.S. Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which continues many of the federal programs started by previous relief packages and includes $65 billion more for expanding high-speed Internet infrastructure and connectivity. Members of Congress returned from their summer break on September 20th and U.S. House Representatives are expected to vote on the infrastructure relief bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, on September 30th.
This guide consolidates the different funding opportunities made available through various relief packages to assist communities interested in accessing federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion services. It updates ILSR’s Community Guide to Broadband Funding released in April of 2021, which describes programs established under ARPA and CAA in more detail, provides additional resources and answers FAQs.
Important upcoming deadlines are bolded throughout this guide.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – Pending
Watch This Webinar on 9/29 - Repairing Broken Broadband Policy: A Conversation with Dr. Christopher Ali
A week from today, the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) is hosting a fireside chat on Tuesday, September 29th at 12-12:30p ET with SHLB Executive Director John Windhausen and Christopher Ali.
Ali is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, and recently released a new book through MIT press called Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity.
From the description:
Before the pandemic-driven surge of public investment in broadband networks, the federal government had subsidized rural broadband by approximately $6 billion a year. So why does the rural-urban digital divide persist? Why are we looking to the new infrastructure bill to solve a problem that should have been solved a decade ago? Author of "Farm Fresh Broadband" Dr. Christopher Ali argues that rural broadband policy is both broken and incomplete, proposing a new national broadband plan. Join SHLB Coalition Executive Director John Windhausen for a virtual fireside chat with Dr. Ali, to pick his brain on where the U.S. is going wrong and how to course correct rural broadband policy moving forward. And of course, they’ll discuss where community anchor institutions fit into it all.
ILSR spoke with Ali on Episode 134 of the Building Local Power podcast, which you can listen to here.
EPIC Grant Winners Include Municipal Networks and Community Connectivity Solutions
The winners of the Truist EPIC grant program, which we wrote about earlier this year, have been announced.
47 projects applied for the funds. Innovative, community-centered projects in Florida and Alabama will be taking home money. So too is Wilson, North Carolina for an expansion of its municipal network, Greenlight. The awards will be distributed by the Internet Society:
Five recipients will share $1 million in grant funding to expand broadband access in their communities as part of the Truist Expanding Potential in Communities (EPIC) Grant. The grant program supports broadband initiatives to help alleviate disparities in education, employment and social welfare in the Southeastern United States.
The grants are "directed toward supporting community networks built, owned and operated by local governments and organizations."
The full list includes:
Plagued by Bad Service, Eastern North Carolina Mayors Petition State Legislature to Let Them Build Municipal Networks
The mayors of nine cities in eastern North Carolina have had enough of Suddenlink's poor service. WRAL reports that they've called on the state legislature to overturn HB 129 and let them build their own networks after years of unreliable connectivity:
“[HB 129] forbade any kind of municipality from establishing broadband as one of their utilities,” Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson said.
Roberson said Internet service in Nash and Edgecombe counties had been a problem for years.
There have been so many complaints against the area’s major provider, Suddenlink, since the COVID-19 pandemic began that the mayor of Tarboro called for the state Attorney General to investigate the company in January.
Months later, area leaders have started to take matters into their own hands, with the mayors of nine cities across Eastern North Carolina petitioning the state legislature to allow them to set up their own fiber networks.
The call to action comes on the heels of the mayors of Tarboro, Rocky Mount, New Bern and Washington calling on the state Attorney General to investigate the company.
Head over to WRAL to read the whole story.
Fiber Network is ‘Life-Changing’ Music for Folks in Washington, MA
As the oldest son of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie — the Town of Washington, Massachusetts’ most famous resident — built a name for himself as a singer-songwriter by letting folks know, “You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.”
But if you ask the town’s Broadband Manager Kent Lew, there was one thing that was not on the menu in Washington before last year: high-speed Internet connectivity.
That’s no longer the case as the small town of Washington (pop. 549) has been on the vanguard of rural communities in the hill towns of the Berkshires that have built out (or are in the process of building out) Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to bring gigabit speeds and affordable connectivity for residents for decades into the future.
The Pandemic: Curse & Blessing
“On the eve the Governor announced the (pandemic) shut down in March of 2020, our first Fiber Service Area was ready,” Lew recalled in a recent interview with us. “It was tremendous that we were able to do this just as people really needed it.”
As one of dozens of Western Massachusetts towns working in partnership with municipal utility provider Westfield Gas + Electric (which operates Whip City Fiber) to build broadband infrastructure, it was in 2015 that Town Meeting voters authorized a $770,000 bond issuance to finance half the construction costs of the $1.47 million network. The other half came from state grant funding.
Franklin County, Ohio Aims to Address Digital Equity in Urban Areas
Schools offer not only education, but nourishment, a place to form friendships and bonds, and a way to make sure youth are safe. When the pandemic hit, schools had to transition to distance learning and, as a result, many students disappeared because their family didn’t have access to or couldn’t afford a home Internet connection. It became immediately clear, all over the country, that a lack of broadband access and broadband affordability were no longer issues that could be ignored.
Many cities throughout the U.S. have been working over the last year to address this issue, but one city in particular - Columbus, Ohio - has been taking a holistic approach to broadband access.
The Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition was borne out of the emergency needs presented by the pandemic, but has shaped up to be a good model for how to address the broadband issues facing urban communities across the country.
After 11 months of meeting and planning, the coalition released a framework in March outlining its five pillars of focus: broadband affordability, device access, digital life skills and technical support, community response and collaboration, and advocacy for broadband funding and policy.
The coalition also developed two pilot programs to increase broadband access.
The first, which was a quickly deployed and desperately needed response to the lack of broadband access, was the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program. Launched in September 2020 in anticipation of the upcoming school year, it offered hotspot devices with unlimited data plans to central Ohio households with k-12 students. The program, while still growing, has been deployed with about 2,300 hotspots distributed so far with the help of PCs for People.
The second (the City of Columbus and Smart Columbus Pilot Projects) uses the city’s existing fiber backbone to bring affordable Internet service to the Near East and South Side neighborhoods in Columbus.
Both pilot programs are the result of nearly 30 organizations coming together to get affordable access to some of the city and county’s most vulnerable populations.
There’s Power in Numbers
Eastern Shore Broadband Takes Fiber Leap With Help from NASA
Hop in a time machine and go back to 2008. It was a banner year for NASA as the space agency celebrated its 50th birthday. Phoenix touched down on Mars, far-off planets were photographed, four space shuttles flew to the International Space Station, and the agency helped send scientific instruments to the moon aboard India’s first lunar explorer.
Meanwhile on Earth, it was the under-the-radar launch of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) fiber network in 2008 that carried the most practical payload for the people of Accomack and Northampton counties along coastal Virginia. A popular tourist destination “for lovers,” the Eastern Shore is a 70-mile stretch of barrier islands between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And thanks in large part to funding from NASA, which operates the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, the future-proof broadband frontier had finally found its way to the region.
The two counties of Eastern Shore, Accomack and Northampton, provided an initial sum of about $270,000 to ESVBA to plan the network. It was one small step for high-speed connectivity in the Commonwealth, followed by one giant leap when ESVBA received $8 million in federal and state funds – nearly half of which came from NASA – to build the region’s open access middle mile backbone. When that part of the network was completed, the Wallops Flight Facility and its 1,100 employees were connected to it, as was the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office and an array of area healthcare institutions and schools.
The Final Fiber Frontier