Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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The recently passed infrastructure package is going to drive an unprecented amount of money to broadband projects over the next few years, which means that communities that begin serious planning and preparation now will find themselves in the best place to succeed in the near and medium future. Dozens of cities have announced plans to use Rescue Plan funds to begin surveying, mapping, developing feasibility studies, and contracting high-level designs, signalling a commitment to improving local Internet access and backing that commitment from that flexible pot of funding.
But maybe local officials in your community have shown a reluctance to heed the call that poor Internet during the pandemic has negatively impacted students, small businesses, or efforts to work from home. Or the city council has already earmarked those funds for needed water or sewer upgrades. The good news is, a philanthropic partnership has launched an effort to help out a handful or communities.
Connect Humanity, in partnership with EntryPoint Networks and Biarri Networks, is giving out five Broadband Master Plans to communities to help bring the digital divide through an initiative they are calling Build Better Broadband. The comprehensive analyses will include everything from surveys of current access, to network design, to financial modeling and risk assessment. Applications are due January 14, 2022.
Successful applicantions, the website points out, will focus on "speed, affordability, and overall access in diverse, low-income, and/or historically underserved communities through non-profit, community-owned, or public infrastructure." Communities of all sizes, from rural and urban areas, are invited to apply. Contenders will participate in an interview process in the first weeks of February, with winners announced at the end of the month.
Connect Humanity describes itself as a "fund advancing digital equity."
When the FCC announced the winners of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) last December, many industry veterans were surprised by the appearance of LTD Broadband as the largest recipient of funds. The company managed to snag more than $1.3 billion to serve 528,000 locations across 15 states, but its capability to do so immediately drew skepticism from many (including us).
Now, a little less than a year later, the company's chickens are coming home to roost. In a recent ruling denying the company the expanded Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status it needs to offer service in RDOF-awarded areas, the Iowa Utilities Board took LTD to task for a history of noncompliance and late payments:
Specifically, LTD had not complied with the Board’s February 22, 2019 order, as LTD had not yet filed a registration as a telecommunications service provider, was past due on its DPRS assessment, and had not yet filed an annual report with the Board for reporting years 2019 and 2020.
[B]eyond the procedural flaws in LTD’s Application, the company’s responses to Board . . . illustrate that LTD has routinely submitted regulatory filings with obvious errors, if filings were submitted at all . . . It is for this reason that the Board takes seriously LTD’s history of inconsistent compliance with this provision, as the regulatory burden is minimal and the consequence of failing to uphold the obligation ETCs pledge to carry out impacts the rest of the industry, the Board, and most importantly, the Iowans served by the program.
But the regulatory board took its comments a step further, basing its ruling also on the fact that the company's behavior in the state betrays what looks like a lack of ability to meet its bidding commitments during the auction:
The record in this docket does not merit the expansion of a credential that signals to the public that LTD has evidenced the technical and financial capabilities required to carry out the public interest obligations of those entrusted with federal funds. LTD’s responses and actions lack the candor that the Board would expect from a carrier seeking to evidence the expertise to take on this degree of expansion.
The Atlantic Telephone Membership Cooperative (ATMC) has worked to meet the communications needs of its members since its inception by the citizens of rural Brunswick County, North Carolina who were without telephone service in 1955. Nowadays, ATMC believes meeting members’ communications needs means ensuring all co-op members have access to gigabit fiber Internet service.
High-speed Internet access is currently available throughout 100 percent of the co-op’s service area in southeastern North Carolina. Most co-op members have access to fiber Internet service already, except for those living in ATMC’s Brunswick County service territory, where ATMC originally began offering Internet services.
Brunswick County is the last county ATMC needs to upgrade to fiber, in order to complete an overarching goal of delivering fiber-to-the-home Internet service to all existing members. The co-op recently announced it will soon start a project to replace all of its copper and coaxial wires in Brunswick County with fiber optic cables. It will cost $100 million dollars and take eight years to complete, but at the end of the project, all of the cooperative’s members in Brunswick County currently served by legacy infrastructure will be upgraded to fiber, offering even faster Internet access speeds and far greater reliability.
In the meantime, ATMC has increased the maximum broadband speed delivered to co-op members in Brunswick County from 200 megabits per second (Mbps) to 600 Mbps, a company press release states. Over 22,000 customers had their download speeds doubled without an increase in price.
“The project is slated to start in January 2022,” according to an ATMC press release announcing the project. “By constructing in the most densely populated communities first, the cooperative estimates that it can convert as many as 75 percent of homes and businesses to the new fiber optic network within the first 60 months.”
Cedar Falls Utilities is bringing 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access to the last 700 residents in its electric service area. With the help of a $2.3 million state grant, Cedar Falls Utilities fiber ISP - CFU FiberNet - will be connecting rural residents to the west and north of Cedar Falls city limits.
Up until this point, CFU FiberNet has offered rural residents in the utilities service area without a fiber connection a fixed wireless option called WaveNet Wireless with two speed options: 9/1 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $56/month and 18/2 Mbps for $75/month. We do not know if WaveNet Wireless will continue after the expansion into these rural areas is complete.
The funds were awarded through the Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program which had nearly 180 applicants hoping for a grant from the $97.5 million pot of money. Ultimately, 38 projects were chosen. Winning bids aimed were aimed at two groups of households, with the requirement to deliver at least 100 Mbps symmetrical service to what we usually call “underserved” areas (where service is greater than 25/3Mbps but less than 100/100 Mbps), or 100/20 Mbps service in areas where broadband access is currently less than 25/3 Mbps.
The challenge for these CFU electric subscribers to get onto the fiber network was the $7,500 cost of the drop; households in rural areas all around the country face a similar financial obstacle, even when excellent broadband service is nearby. With CFU contributing an additional $3 million to the effort (making the total project cost $5.3 million) these residents will no longer have the burden of making that hefty financial decision.
The U.S. Department of Treasury, tasked with writing the rules on how state and local governments can spend various federal relief funds made available for broadband expansion by the American Rescue Plan, recently released the guidelines [pdf] governing the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) — a $10 billion pot of money available to states, territories, and Tribal governments [pdf] to confront the need for improved Internet connectivity exposed during the pandemic.
Compared to when Treasury released rules governing the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds earlier this year, this go ‘round brought cheers instead of jeers from community broadband advocates, as we are seeing federal broadband policy break new ground.
The flexibility the Capital Projects Fund gives state and local governments to decide how to spend the relief funds is what broadband advocates are most excited about. CPF applicants are able to use the money in creative ways to respond to critical needs in their community laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, as long as the resulting project directly enables remote work, education, and health monitoring.
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
In this episode of the Connect This! Show, co-hosts Christopher and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) are joined by Jessica Engle (IT Director for the Yurok Tribe) and Matthew Rantanen (Director of Technology, Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association) to talk about broadband in Indian Country.
The panel discusses the realities of deploying wired and wireless broadband infrastructure on tribal lands, and what the Yurok tribe has learned along the way in overcoming challenges and working with partners and vendors to expand access in efficient but sustainable ways.
During the hour, Matt, Jess, Travis, and Christopher also talk about the $1 billion Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the long history of underinvestment by incumbent providers in Indian County, and how communities can position themselves to succeed in the context of local conditions in pursuing long-term solutions.
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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:
Congress and the White House are currently managing a handful of different infrastructure proposals which are coming down the pipeline fast. In terms of major legislation, there’s President Biden’s revised $65 billion in funding as part of the American Jobs Plan, the Bridge Act, which would see $40 billion dispensed in state block grants aimed at unserved and poverty-stricken parts of the country, and the LIFT Act, which comes from the 32 Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and would allocate $80 billion for infrastructure and another $30 billion for next-generation 911 services and digital inclusion efforts.
It remains uncertain where we will ultimately land on the above, but a few things are clear: whatever plan we as a country adopt, this is a once-in-a-generation endeavor to upgrade and expand our broadband infrastructure in the name of future-proof, affordable, and universal service. Whatever framework is agreed upon will drive how and where we invest, and those are critical considerations to make.
Residents and businesses in Drammen, Wisconsin are about to benefit from a combination of state grants and public financing to bring fiber connectivity which promises to cover the whole town over the next two years. Twin projects by neighboring telephone cooperatives will utilize a total of $1.9 million to expand into the town of about 800, located 10 miles southwest of Eau Claire, which has long struggled with adequate Internet service.
By Our Powers Combined
The work comes in part as the result of two funding streams. The first is $1.5 million from among the $28.4 million awarded to 58 projects around the state by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin via the latest round of awards from the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, in March 2021. 24-7 & West Wisconsin Telcom Cooperative received $710,000 to connect six businesses and 110 residences on the west side of town, while Tri-County Communications Cooperative received $740,000 to connect six businesses and 156 residences on the east side of town. All told, the two cooperatives will install 58 miles of fiber connecting 278 residents and businesses.
Drammen is playing a key role in driving the project along, successfully acquiring a low-interest $400,000 loan from the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which manages a state trust fund that supports, among an array of other activities, municipal infrastructure projects like these. The award, announced in April, will join the grants to facilitate the construction.
A Long, Local History
24-7 & West Wisconsin Telcom Cooperative was founded 65 years ago by local farmers trying to bring telecommunications to their areas. Today, it has connected communities in Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce and St. Croix counties.