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Broadband Champion Jim Baller Presented With Lifetime Achievement Award

Whether it's supporting municipal broadband projects, fostering public-private partnerships, or advocating for laws and policies to improve local Internet choice, for decades James (Jim) Baller has distinguished himself as a telecom attorney fighting for the rights of communities to decide their own digital futures.

This week, Baller’s trailblazing career was honored at the 50th Anniversary Gala of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in Washington D.C. where he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award as ILSR celebrated a half-century of advocacy work to promote and sustain vibrant local communities.

“I am very grateful for this award, which highlights my dedication to informed local broadband choice,” Baller said in accepting the award at the Howard Theater. “Thank you to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for this recognition and for emphasizing the positive impact of community-driven broadband initiatives.”

Introducing Baller to a packed theater, ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative Director Christopher Mitchell described him as “someone who has shaped our work and has meant a lot for the entire nation.”

Mitchell said not only has Baller worked with countless communities and clients across the country who have benefited from his expert legal advice, but went on to note Baller's legacy and leadership:

"Jim Baller worked on the first municipal broadband project, shaped many of the people organizing for better broadband, and has consistently worked on effective ways to improve Internet access for everyone.”

Currently serving as Senior Counsel with Keller and Heckman’s Telecommunications practice, Baller has long been a leading legal practitioner helping communities do the important nitty gritty work involved in providing better broadband – from the siting of wireless network facilities and managing rights-of-way to negotiating fiber network pole attachments and public private partnerships.

Caution Ahead: RDOF and BEAD Collision Course

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was supposed to drive affordable fiber into vast swaths of long-underserved parts of rural America. And while the FCC administered program accomplished some of that goal, a multitude of problems have plagued the program since its inception, putting both current and future broadband funding opportunities at risk.

The $20.4 billion RDOF program was created in 2019 by the Trump FCC as a way to shore 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 chosen 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, according to ILSR data, roughly 34 percent of census blocks that won RDOF funding–more than $3 billion in awards – are now in default. All told, 287,322 census blocks were defaulted on by more than 121 providers as of December 2023.

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RDOF top 10 screenshot

The defaults are only one part of a larger problem: namely that many communities bogged down in RDOF program dysfunction may risk losing out on the historic amount of federal funding to build modern broadband networks (BEAD) made possible by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

One Big Giant Mess

Metro Connect, AT&T FWA, MDUs, and RDOF | Connect This! Show Episode 90

Connect This

Join us Friday, March 1st at 3pm 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 guest Doug Dawson (CCG Consulting) and Kim McKinley (UTOPIA Fiber) and special guest Gigi Sohn (American Association or Public Broadband) to talk about the 2024 Metro Connect conference, multi-dwelling units, AT&T's fixed wireless dreams, and municipal network developments in Fort Pierce, Florida and elsewhere before ending the show with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Email us at broadband@communitynets.org with feedback and ideas for the show.

Subscribe to the show using this feed or find it on the Connect This! page, and watch on LinkedIn, on YouTube Live, on Facebook live, or below.

 

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Fort Pierce, Florida Making Progress On Utility-Backed Fiber Build

Fort Piece, Florida officials say the city continues to make steady progress with its plan to expand access to affordable fiber to all 45,000 Fort Pierce residents with the help of the city-owned utility. The network, inspired by similar utility-backed efforts in cities like Chattanooga, promises to deliver multi-gigabit speeds at prices notably lower than regional monopolies.

Since 1972, the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has provided gas, electric, water, and natural gas services to city residents. Since the early 2000s, FPUA has deployed 110 miles of optical fiber via its FPUAnet Communications division. In 2018, the city, frustrated by limited broadband competition, decided to expand network access to the public.

“Our network is moving along well,” Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager told ILSR. “We have passed about 1000 parcels and will pass another 1000 next year.”

The full deployment is expected to take somewhere between five to ten years to finish, and is funded by bonds held by FPUAnet. The network is utilizing GPON fiber technology capable of 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) downstream and 1.25 Gbps upstream in some areas, and XGS-PON-based fiber capable of symmetrical 10 Gbps speeds in others.

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Fort Pierce FPUAnet logo

Mittler notes that the finished product should result in both last-mile speeds and pricing that regional telecom monopolies, predominantly AT&T and Comcast, are both unable and unwilling to offer. Especially on the upstream side of the equation.

Mittler says the plan remains to provide all locals with access to symmetrical 100 Mbps for $49 a month; symmetrical 200 Mbps for $69 a month; symmetrical 200 Mbps service for $69 a month, symmetrical 500 Mbps for $79 per month; and symmetrical gigabit for $99 a month.

Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative Should Light Up First Fiber Users By August

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.

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Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative Rapid Fire Internet logo

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.”

Florida Designates $144 Million in ARPA Funds for 58 Broadband Projects

Florida’s state broadband office is doling out $144 million in grants to 58 different broadband expansion projects across 41 Florida counties.

The funding is being delivered courtesy of Florida’s Broadband Opportunity Grant Program, itself made possible by federal legislation—the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)— that many Florida lawmakers opposed.

The full breakdown of the deployments make it clear that, similarly to what we’ve seen in states like Montana, the lion’s share of state funding will be going to regional cable monopolies.

Roughly $89 million of Florida’s $144 million grant award will be going to the state’s three largest cable broadband providers: Cox, Comcast, and Charter. Comcast obtained $45 million, Charter was awarded approximately $28 million, and Cox was awarded $16 million. A more detailed breakdown of the awards obtained by Telecompetitor indicates that the vast majority of the projects are partnerships with cable giants.

Nearly $1 Billion in Rescue Plan Funds Heads to Six States

The U.S. Treasury Department announced another six states have been approved to receive nearly $1 billion in Capital Projects Funds from the American Rescue Plan to bring new broadband infrastructure to more than 180,000 homes and businesses.

The latest tranche of CPF funds is heading to Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Utah, bringing the total number of states to have been approved for their share of the $10 billion fund to 22 states.

Previous awards were announced in June, July, August, early October and late October. According to a Treasury Department press release, the remaining funds for additional states and Tribal territories will be released on a rolling basis.

U.S. Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said the announcement further underscored the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to invest in the expansion of reliable, affordable broadband infrastructure as the Covid pandemic “exposed the stark inequity in access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet in communities across the country.”

This funding will lay the foundation for the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic investments to increase access to high-speed Internet and reduce Internet bills for American households and businesses.

Florida

The Sunshine State is set to receive $248 million to fund new broadband infrastructure that will connect an estimated 48,400 households and businesses, or about 10 percent of locations in Florida that do not have access to high-speed Internet. That amount accounts for 68 percent of the CPF funds Florida will receive as plans for how the state will spend the remainder of funds is still under Treasury review.

Lakeland Public-Private Broadband Project Faces Delays, Frustration

In the summer of 2021, Lakeland city commissioners voted 5-to-1 to strike a private-public partnership (P3) with Summit Broadband, part of a 10 year plan to expand broadband availability within city limits. But officials in this central Florida city of 112,000 have expressed growing consternation that the planned broadband expansion is behind schedule and more selective than expected. 

“I think this is the right move for the City of Lakeland as it will accomplish what was my goal: to make it a smart city without the burden of bonding out our debt,” Lakeland Commissioner Bill Read said shortly after the project was announced. “The private sector can do a job much better than any public entity, better than our city.”

A year later and several city leaders don’t seem entirely sure. 

Local news outlet LkldNow indicated last month that most Lakeland residents have yet to see service, and that Summit appears to have shifted its deployment priorities away from uniform house-by-house coverage, and toward select businesses and housing development developments.

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said of the revelations:  

I am not satisfied with the speed with which Summit is rolling out service to consumers in Lakeland and concerned that they may have de-emphasized that express concurrent desire of the commission. Whereas it has been our goal to provide commercial business with improved Internet service, the consumer emphasis was originally and consistently one of our highest expressed priorities and motivations.

City Officials Question Partners’ Apparent Shift in Strategy

Under the city’s 10 year agreement with Summit, the provider pledged to spend $20 million over the next five years expanding the city’s existing 350-mile dark fiber network. Under the deal, Summit will pay the city $144,000 per year initially, ultimately switching to paying the city 10 percent of gross revenue on Internet services.

Gainesville Tosses Muni Broadband Project into Big Telecom Swamp

Gainesville City Commissioners dealt a severe – if not fatal – blow to the expansion of municipal broadband in the Florida city where Gatorade was invented. Last week, five of the city’s seven commissioners voted to reject a proposal to spend $10 million of its American Rescue Plan funds to build a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) pilot project.

As we reported here and here, city officials had been leaning in the direction of using $10 million of its $32 million in federal rescue plan funds to extend the city utility’s existing fiber network to bring high-speed Internet access to about 5,000 households caught on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) has already deployed over 600 miles of fiber throughout the city, and for the past two decades, its subsidiary GATOR NET has been offering symmetrical gig-speed service to a limited number of area businesses, apartment buildings, government agencies, and community anchor institutions. 

In 2017, the citizen-led group Connected Gainesville began a public campaign with the hopes of persuading city officials to bring FTTH service citywide in a market dominated by Cox Communications, the incumbent monopoly cable provider serving this city’s approximately 141,000 residents, 56,000 of whom attend the University of Florida.

Death-knell for Municipal Broadband in Gainesville?

Gainesville Earmarks Rescue Plan Funds for Citywide Municipal Network

In August we reported on the effort to bring municipal fiber-to-the-home service to Gainesville. At the time, city commissioners were wrestling with whether to spend a portion of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to start construction on the first phase of a citywide fiber network.

After postponing a previously scheduled vote on how to spend the money at a meeting in October, city commissioners earlier this month voted to set aside $9.6 million of the city’s $32 million in Rescue Plan funds to extend its existing fiber network to connect over 2,000 businesses and nearly 10,000 homes in areas of the north central Florida city identified by planners as neighborhoods where service is most needed. Those neighborhoods include Springhill, Grove Street, Oakview Duckpond, Stephen Foster, Lincoln Estates, Duval, and Highland Court Manor.

“This is a huge step forward for our community,” said Bryan Eastman, founder of Connected Gainesville, a citizen-led advocacy group that launched in 2017 pushing for the city’s utility company to build out its existing fiber network to serve all of Alachua County.

Our city residents are tired of the status quo and are ready for a more connected future with better Internet [access] options. Thank you to our city commission for investing in this future. This is not the final vote on this, but it's the biggest step we've taken yet.

‘Powerful forces’ Lurk Behind-the-Scenes

While city commissioners voted to “set aside” the ARPA funds for broadband expansion, it was not a final vote to fund the project. The final vote is slated for January 6, 2022 after commissioners hear from city staff on how they intend to roll out the initiative.

Eastman said that while the final vote seems likely to pass, now is the time to keep pushing.

“There are still powerful forces that don’t want this to come to fruition, so we’re doing everything we can to get citizens to reach out and tell their commissioners they want municipal broadband in Gainesville,” he told us earlier this week.

Majority Believe Expanding Broadband Access is ‘Essential’