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Today, the U.S. Treasury Department released an updated FAQ clarifying many of the concerns and questions raised by numerous community broadband advocates and members of Congress about the Interim Final Rules (IFR) on how Coronavirus relief funds in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) could be spent on broadband infrastructure.
The day after the rules were first released in May we wrote about how it appeared the IFR, if finalized as is, would significantly limit local communities’ ability to invest in needed broadband infrastructure as the rules initially suggested communities were expected to focus on areas that do not have 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) wireline service “reliably available.” While broadband experts might have felt comfortable with that language, it would almost certainly confuse lawsuit-leery city attorneys that have to sign-off on projects in areas with widespread gigabit cable broadband access.
Clarification to Make Community Broadband Advocates Clap
What does the requirement that infrastructure “be designed to” provide service to unserved or underserved households and businesses mean?
The updated FAQ sticks to the 25/3 benchmark, stating: “Designing infrastructure investments to provide service to unserved or underserved households or businesses means prioritizing deployment of infrastructure that will bring service to households or businesses that are not currently serviced by a wireline connection that reliably delivers at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps of upload speed.”
However, the FAQ goes on to say, “to meet this requirement, states and localities should use funds to deploy broadband infrastructure projects whose objective is to provide service to unserved or underserved households or businesses. These unserved or underserved households or businesses do not need to be the only ones in the service area funded by the project (emphasis added).”
The day after the U.S. Treasury published the Interim Final Rules on how Coronavirus relief funds in the American Rescue Plan Act can be spent, we sounded the alarm because it appears the rules, if finalized as is, would significantly limit local communities’ ability to invest in needed broadband infrastructure.
Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and eight other members of Congress joined the growing number of community broadband advocates who share those concerns.
On Tuesday, May 25, Sen. Wyden sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging her “to ensure any community with service that falls below (the Treasury’s) own standard of 100 (Megabits per second) Mbps upload and download speeds is eligible for funding.”
Two days later, U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-California) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) penned a similar letter that was also signed by Wyden and six other members of Congress (U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, Mike Thompson, Jerry McNerney, Lori Trahan, Peter Welch, and Debbie Dingell). Eshoo and Booker have long led efforts to support local initiatives to expand Internet access with community solutions.
25/3 Not Sufficient
Even as the Treasury acknowledges that families really need 100/100 Mbps service, as the Interim Rules are currently written it suggests communities are expected to focus on areas that do not have 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) wireline service “reliably available.” About 90 percent of Americans have 25/3 “available” to them by flawed federal estimates, although millions lack service because it is unaffordable or effectively unreliable. And there is no standard for reliability that communities can measure against.
The Eshoo/Booker letter is particularly salient on this point:
Earlier this year in March, the Biden Administration signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which included, among many other things, multiple sources of funds for broadband infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Treasury was tasked with writing the rules of how local governments can spend the various funds. The Interim Rule has been published and it appears to significantly limit local ability to invest in needed networks.
The rules say that communities are expected to focus on areas that do not have 25/3 Mbps service reliably available. But there is no measure of what “reliably” means (in federal statute or otherwise). More than 90 percent of Americans have 25/3 “available” to them by best estimates. The result is considerable confusion for urban areas across the nation who no longer qualify for broadband investments under a strict reading of the proposed rules. This is not what the Biden Administration had suggested we should expect in its many press communications about its broadband approach.
This discussion is about Section 602, which details the direct payments to local governments under the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. The aid offered to local governments has numerous authorized expenditures, including broadband infrastructure.
Florida Legislature rewrites utility pole bill to include language backed by municipal electric utilities
North Carolina’s County Broadband Authority Act includes clause drawing criticism from electric co-ops
Oklahoma Governor signs mapping bill, vetoes measure adding Tribal representation to state broadband council
The State Scene
The Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) is expanding gigabit fiber Internet access with financial assistance from federal and state grants to provide high-speed broadband to residents living in some of North Carolina's most rural, poverty-stricken regions.
A $7.9 million federal allotment from the USDA’s ReConnect Program, to which the North Carolina-based telephone cooperative is contributing matching funds, has kickstarted a $15.87 million Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) broadband deployment project in one of the Coastal Plains’ southernmost counties.
ATMC recently completed construction of the first four phases of its 60-phase “Faster Columbus” project, connecting residents living in the New Life community east of Tabor City to its gigabit fiber service. Upon completion of all 60 phases, the project will provide ATMC’s FOCUS Fiber Internet service to 2,775 unserved households in rural Columbus County. The completed project will also serve over 50 businesses, ten educational facilities, three critical community facilities, and 23 agricultural operations in the communities of Hallsboro, Lake Waccamaw, Bolton, north Tabor City and Whiteville.
The fiber Internet service ATMC is providing is expected to have a substantial impact on the region’s agriculture industry, one of the main sectors of the local economy. The FTTH service will also benefit the Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe, whose reservation is located on the edge of the Green Swamp. Speaking of the anticipated service, Brenda J. Moore, Housing Coordinator of the Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe said, "Finally our Tribal students can look forward to no more boot-legging of Wi-Fi in order to do their homework."
Nebraska Senate rejects amendment supporting municipal broadband in spending plan
Michigan Governor vetoes bill granting private ISPs property tax exemptions
Montana, Iowa and Maine channel Rescue Plan funds towards new broadband grant initiatives
The State Scene
The Nebraska Senate approved a plan to spend $40 million over the next two years on expanding rural access to high-speed Internet by a unanimous vote on Tuesday, but only after an amendment to L.B. 388 that would have allowed municipalities to offer retail broadband services was rejected.
State Sen. Justin Wayne introduced the amendment, saying that “broadband should be considered a critical infrastructure need and that private telecommunications companies have not stepped up to serve the whole state,” the Lincoln Journal Star reports.
Wayne urged Nebraska Senators “to look to Nebraska's history of public power as a model, as well as to the example of other states that are allowing cities to offer broadband.” The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 20-24. Wayne assured fellow Senators that he will reintroduce the amendment in the future.
The bill marked the first time the Nebraska Legislature has suggested using state tax dollars to fund broadband deployment. As it was submitted to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signature, the bill would annually allocate, until funds run out, $20 million in grants to projects that increase access to high-speed broadband in unserved regions of Nebraska. It would prioritize projects in regions which lack access to Internet service with speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload. Grant recipients would be required to deploy networks capable of providing service of at least 100/100 Mbps within 18 months.
The Lafayette, Louisiana-based municipal network, LUS Fiber, is expanding into rural southwest Louisiana with the help of a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA).
The federal grant, announced in February, will cover 80 percent of the cost. LUS Fiber will match up to $700,000 in additional grant funding for the project.
LUS Fiber, which offers speeds up to 10 Gigabit-per-second speeds, is partnering with Acadiana Planning Commission (APC) for the development and construction of the “certified all-fiber network.” Construction of the high-speed Internet backbone along the U.S. Highway 90 is set to begin this year and is expected to be completed within two years.
New Routes, New Subscribers
Forty-seven miles of fiber infrastructure will connect Lafayette Parish, St. Martin Parish, and Iberia Parish. The project “could add between 650 and 1,400 new Internet customers to the telecom’s roughly 21,000 current accounts,” according to the Daily Advertiser’s coverage of the announcement in February.
St. Martin Parish President Chest Cedars told the Daily Advertiser businesses that are central to the economic vitality of the region are just off Highway 90.
“When it was agreed that fiber would take a little left turn and hit our SMEDA Industrial Park it was even a greater win for St. Martin Parish because six of our top 10 taxpayers in our parish are housed in that particular industrial center,” Cedars said.
Maryland plans to funnel American Rescue Plan Act funding towards community broadband
Vermont Governor bolsters House plan backing Communications Union Districts
A national movement to address digital inclusion ignites
See the bottom of this post for related job openings
Maryland State Governor Larry Hogan made digital equity and literacy a top priority of the state when he signed H.B. 97, the Digital Connectivity Act, into law on April 13. The new law establishes the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB) within the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to create a plan to get all Marylanders connected to affordable, high-speed Internet by 2026. The OSB will also assist in administering $300 million for digital equity initiatives out of the $3.9 billion Maryland received in American Rescue Plan funds.
The $300 million allocation will be broken down into separate pots of money to address physical infrastructure, affordability, and adoption: $45 million will be for grants that support and expand municipal broadband networks; $75 million for affordability initiatives to subsidize the cost of monthly service fees and devices for eligible residents who are subscribers to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs); and $150 million dedicated to deploy broadband infrastructure and expand connectivity in both urban and rural areas. In addition, $10 million is earmarked for local government and community-based solutions, and $6 million will support adoption initiatives, including $4 million for a new division under the University System of Maryland to develop curriculum on digital literacy and addressing the broadband gap.
When he was a colonel in the Virginia Militia, George Washington is said to have visited “Craig’s Camp,” a mountainous frontier outpost in southwest Virginia near the border of what would later become West Virginia. After the Seven Years' War, farmers and tradesmen were drawn to the area, establishing a settlement known then as “Newfincastle.” Over the years, the “fin” was dropped and the town became New Castle, the seat of Craig County.
Today – with the Jefferson National Forest comprising half of the county, its scenic byways, access to the Appalachian Trail, old churches, and family cemeteries – Craig County and the surrounding region remains steeped in early American history. And now, thanks to the Craig-Botetourt Rural Electric Cooperative (CBEC), this corner of rural Virginia has established a forward-looking outpost of Internet connectivity, and a new fiber frontier that planners hope to expand across the seven counties that make up CBEC’s 650 square-mile service area.
The Bee Online Advantage
It was in 2018 when CBEC began to seriously consider building a broadband network to serve its 6,800 members because, as the co-op’s website puts it: “Our members are experiencing what originally created the electric cooperative in 1936 – a lack of service. They lacked electricity  years ago; now they lack high-speed Internet [access].”
That lack of high-speed Internet connectivity is becoming a thing of the past, at least for co-op members in Botetourt County who now have access to an emerging Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service through a CBEC subsidiary known as the Bee Online Advantage.
Last fall we wrote about the launch of Project OVERCOME, a grant program "designed to connect the unconnected through novel broadband technology solutions" by soliciting applications from community-based organizations and ultimately award $2.7 million funded through the National Science Foundation and Schmidt Futures (the philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt).
Project OVERCOME seeks to "[C]ollect data to measure the technical and social impacts of different connectivity strategies [in order to] discover patterns of success that can be repeated on a larger scale across the country, and to catalog the distinctions that emerge based on variations in the communities served."
Each of the winning projects will serve as an incubator of sorts, deploying proofs of concept with an array of wired and wireless technologies to connect households in
Winning applications were recently announced for projects in Blue River, Oregon; Detroit, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; Yonkers, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Clinton County, Missouri; and Loiza, Puerto Rico.