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Tens of thousands of homes, businesses, farms, schools, and community anchor institutions in the Sunflower State will see better connectivity options over the next few years. A recent executive order [pdf] establishing a Kansas Office of Broadband Development followed by the announcement of more than $49 million in grants to 67 projects around the state means a host of Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), fixed wireless, and institutional networks will break ground in the near future. The measure comes in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
A Broadband Office and Grant Program
The new Office of Broadband Development has been placed in the state’s Department of Commerce, and given the task of promoting networks of all kinds — municipal, cooperative, private, and nonprofit — as well as supporting regional initiatives, developing a better broadband map, and removing policy barriers to fast deployment.
The state actually has two grant programs ongoing at the moment as part of the connectivity program approved the state’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce and the State Finance Council. The Broadband Partnership Adoption Grants (BPAG) are designed to help low-income Kansans pay for service with existing plans. The large pot of grant money just announced, on the other hand, is part of the Define Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG), which will use CARES funding to facilitate new builds between now and the end of the year.
US Ignite has announced a new initiative called Project Overcome which will fund five projects looking for novel solutions to broadband connectivity problems in communities around the United States.
Th endeavor, funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, will “support the selection and buildout of five proof-of-concept network deployments designed to connect both rural and urban communities in novel ways.” More than three-quarters of the funding will go directly to project awards, with the aim 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.
The Application Process
An RFP will come out in the next few weeks, with winners chosen by early spring. From the website, competitive applications will:
Be chosen based on the use of innovative technologies, such as mesh networks and new spectrum access solutions, as well as creative deployment models that leverage both public and private sector partners. Participating teams should draw from some combination of academic, nonprofit, industry, government, student, and volunteer partners. The five proposals ultimately selected will reflect a mix of population density characteristics, demographics, geographic regions, housing types, local and industry collaborations, and technical approaches.
Last June's scaled-down Vermont’s Emergency Broadband Action Plan, intended as a fast-moving effort to connect residents in the Green Mountain State in the era of COVID, has seen its first two rounds disbursed since August. The Get Vermonters Connected Now Initiative has granted Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the state a little under $8 million of its available $17 million budget to fund projects which will reach almost 7,500 locations by the end of the year. Of these, more than 3,000 did not have 4/1 Megabit per second (Mbps) service.
Round 1 Winners
The program is run by the Public Service Commission, which does not stipulate any match requirements and establishes 25/3 Mbps as the minimum speed for new services (though it does encourage grantees to aim for 100 Mbps symmetrical connections “where possible”). Community-owned networks are included in the list of winners.
The first round, announced at the end of August, totaled $3,926,650 to serve over 5,800 locations. Of them, the Commission notes, 2,200 lack a connection of 4/1 Megabits per second (Mbps), and 465 premises identified a specific telehealth, telework, or distance learning need related to the ongoing public health crisis. The full list of winners are:
- $351,520 to Mansfield Community Fiber to extend fiber broadband to 676 locations and offset the customer costs for 10 locations
- $171,770 to the NEW Alliance (Cloud Alliance and New England Wireless) to serve wireless broadband to 632 locations
- $1,964,230 to VTel to serve wireless broadband to 3,992 location
- $56,607 to Duncan Cable to extend fiber broadband to 35 locations
- $152,500 to Comcast to extend cable broadband to 77 locations
- $1,117,570 to ECFiber to extend fiber broadband to 394 locations
- $112,453 to Waitsfield & Champlain Valley Telecom to extend fiber broadband to 26 locations
Round 2 Winners
Janesville, Wisconsin (pop. 64,000) Information Technology Director Gordon LaChance has been investing in fiber infrastructure for city needs for the last 12 years, but he’s been hoping it would lead to something more. That day may have come, with the recent award of a $114,000 grant from Wisconsin Public Utility Commission.
The grant allows the city to participate in a public-private partnership that will bring fiber to a handful of unserved or underserved commercial locations in town. The move is the first of its kind for the city, and involves an exchange of capacity that will allow WIN Technologies — a private Internet Service Provider (ISP) — to bring service to two SHINE Medical Technology locations (a small headquarters downtown as well as a large, new development being built south of town), the Janesville Centennial Business Park, the Beloit Avenue Corridor Business Park, and the Janesville Innovation Center.
The grant application was spearheaded by the city’s Economic Development Office, which gathered the players and helped iron out the details. LaChance described how the deal would work in a phone interview. The city will give WIN access to some of its dark fiber, which WIN will make use of along with the grant funds and additional private investment to build south and connect those areas of town. In return, WIN will lay extra fiber as it goes and hand it over the LaChance’s office, allowing the city plant to expand in that direction when it otherwise would not be able to justify the cost. It remains early, but the city estimates that around a dozen businesses will be connected with the expansion. Better connectivity will also spur the revitalization of the Janesville Assembly Plant, a General Motors factory decommissioned in 2008 that is being turned around by a commercial developer to bring manufcaturing production and jobs back to the area.
The Fruits of Forethought
When school shut down past spring, Unit 4 schools in Champaign, Illinois scrambled to get students connected like everyone else. The district handed out Chromebooks and teachers went to work transitioning to online instruction so the school year could continue. But the district noticed that a large percentage of its students weren't logging on and the bulk of them came from Shadowwood mobile home park, where although fiber ran up and down every street in the neighborhood only one family subscribed to wireline Internet access. So Mark Toalson, the city’s IT Director, began making calls, and by the end of the summer a coalition came together to build Shadowwood’s students a free fixed wireless network which went online in August.
Fiber Just a Few Feet Away
The mobile home park sits on the north side of the town of 90,000, and is largely populated by Hispanic residents. Roughly 250 students who attend the Unit 4 school district live there, and according to Toalson not a single one had Internet access beyond personal mobile phones before they began last spring. In late May Mayor Deborah Feinen asked the city manager what could be done, and Toalson was asked to take on the project.
North Carolina’s Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program announced two new rounds of winners recently that will bring Internet access to more than 11,000 households, businesses, farms, and community anchor institutions across the state. The roughly $16 million in projects represents a significant bump in the state’s commitment to its least-connected people, though there remains significant work to be done.
Counties in Need
The winners span projects in 11 rural counties: Bertie, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Graham, Greene, Martin, Nash, Robeson, Rockingham, and Swain. The first round, announced in July, includes $10 million in GREAT funds joined by $2 million in CARES Act money to bring access to 8,017 households and 254 businesses, farms, and community institutions. The governor announced a second round at the end of last week that leverages an additional $4 million in CARES Act funds to connect 3074 households and 191 businesses.
Duplin County (pop. 59,000), in the southeast part of the state, won particularly big this time around, with four providers (CenturyLink, Cloudwyze, Eastern Carolina Broadband, and Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC)) pursuing projects totaling more than $3 million. See the full list of winners here.
Among them are a handful of community networks (like ATMC) and local ISPs (like Eastern Carolina Broadband). Last year ATMC won $7.9 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, which it paired with matching funds to deliver Fiber-to-the-Home to more than 2,700 homes, businesses, and farms.
A Great Program, With Caveats
While new municipal networks often (and rightly!) catch headlines for dramatically improving the lives of residents by giving them access to high-speed, reliable, low-cost Internet access, institutional networks also remain a tried-and-true model for cities and regions looking to begin investing in their information future. And, by connecting government buildings, schools, public libraries, and other community anchor institutions, they save communities money and can serve as an alternative when monopoly ISPs like Comcast try to negotiate huge fee increases to basic city services without any explanation (like in the case of Martin County, FL).
The Miami Valley, Ohio, region accomplished the same goal a year ago, when GATEway Fiber lit up its intergovernmental, multi-jurisdictional fiber network connecting eight member cities and dozens of municipal buildings, schools, and other public anchor institutions. The result of six years of effort, the project provides the capacity and technical expertise for present and future undertakings to enhance educational initiatives, public safety programs, and utility work, and provides a model for other communities looking to work together to secure their information infrastructure moving forward.
A Joint Venture
Lighting up the Prairie State: First Round of Illinois Broadband Grants Includes $50 million in Awards
A year ago we wrote about Illinois’ $420 million commitment to broadband expansion, and now the first round of grant winners has been released. Together they total $50 million in state funds matched by $65 million in additional money for 28 projects by 18 different Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that will, ultimately, connect 26,000 homes, farms, community institutions, and businesses in the state. It represents the first milestone in what is a significant commitment to closing Illinois' broadband gap.
Lots of Winners, Some Caveats
The Broadband Grant Program offers applicants up to $5 million in funding for projects with the stipulation that they match it with an equal or greater amount of other, nonstate funds. First-round winners consist of both middle- and last-mile builds touching at least 27 counties throughout the state. For example, Cook County received a little under $2 million to expand its Chicago Southland Fiber Network (CSFN). CSFN provides backhaul services to many, including the Illinois Century Network — which serves over 3,400 public K-12 schools, universities, and libraries. Their application committed to focusing “on fiber paths that will provide distribution and host last mile service platforms addressing those communities with the greatest need, municipalities with no fiber assets . . and key regional education campus facilities.”
Tribal residents and others living along near Six Rivers National Forest in Humboldt County, California are about to get a broadband boost. The Yurok and Karuk Tribes announced at the end of July that the Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative received more than $10 million from the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC's) California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to add over a 100 miles of additional fiber to the project’s community network, connecting hundreds of additional homes, businesses, and anchor institutions. The award marks the second injection of funding from the CPUC’s grant program to the initiative.
Over the River and Through the Woods
Humboldt County covers more than 4,000 square miles along the coast in the northwest part of the state, about 60 miles west of Redding. It’s one of the least-densely populated areas in the state, marked by rural, mountainous, rugged terrain for the roughly 150,000 people who live there. Those in the northern fifth of the county have it particularly hard; the region is bounded by national forests on either side, with the Klamath River running down the middle. As recently as 2009, telephone service in the region was unreliable, and Internet access was restricted to dial-up or satellite. The Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative (KRRBI) has been working since 2013 to address this digital divide.
The new CPUC award totals a little more than $10.8 million to add 104 miles of new fiber to their middle-mile network. Last-mile connections come via fixed wireless, a cost-effective way to bring broadband to rural areas. The new route will connect the communities of Orleans to Orick and Weitchpec to Wautec and Johnsons, bringing new service to 616 households, 8 first responder agencies, and 14 additional anchor institutions like schools, tribal offices, and health care clinics. The project will also add three redundant links to the existing network across the 80-square mile area.
The board of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative voted unanimously at yesterday's meeting to create a separate entity to pursue broadband funding and development in the state for its 84,000 member-owners, committing $1 million in funding to the effort.
In the press release, President and CEO Steve Camareno remarked: “meeting our members’ needs is NHEC’s only focus, and the ability to access fast, reliable internet service is a critical need, now more than ever. In pursuing this initiative, we remain mindful that we must balance that need with our members’ reliance on NHEC as their electric service provider.”
The response by the board shows the success of local organizing efforts around the issue; voting was up 33% at the annual board meeting last week, where adding broadband to cooperative's charter was a primary concern. The move positions NEHC well to pursue money from the state's available CARES funds as well as bid in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction this fall.
Efforts to add broadband to the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NEHC) charter fell just 2% short of the 2/3 supermajority it needed to pass last week, but supporters remain hopeful. Over seven thousand voters turned out for the annual Board of Directors election, which included the broadband line item on the ballot. The measure fell short by 183 votes. A successful vote would have allowed the co-op to build a broadband network and offer Internet access to its members.