Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Current lawmakers in the Vermont House have rapidly advanced H 513, a bill that addresses both policy and funding hurdles in an attempt to expand broadband throughout the state. After a vote of 139 - 2, the bill went on to the Senate on March 26th.
Looking at Local Models
H 513 recognizes that more than a quarter of the state’s premises don’t have access to broadband speeds as defined by the FCC, 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. The state’s Department of Public Service, which assembled the data, also determines that almost a fifth of premises can’t obtain speeds of 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps. With so many rural communities hurting for access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, state lawmakers are anxious to find tools to expand broadband across Vermont.
Legislators note in the language of H 513 that they believe the FCC’s “light-touch” approach toward expansion of broadband:
“…does little, if anything, to overcome the financial challenges of bringing broadband service to hard-to-reach locations with low population density. However, it may result in degraded broadband quality of service.”
H 513 goes on to acknowledge that grassroots approaches that use local knowledge and support will be the most successful in Vermont.
Lawmakers and their staff have lauded ECFiber as one model that works in a place like Vermont, where many smaller communities can pool their resources and work together to develop a regional network. As the Communications Union District has developed over the years and dealt with funding challenges head-on, it has become apparent that access to capital is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.
Funding for Innovation
In order to help local projects, H 513 will establish the Broadband Innovation Grant Program within the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA).
Governor Jay Inslee started to promote his bill for better broadband earlier this year and, with any luck, Washington will have a solid foundation to expand broadband before the end of this year’s legislative session. SB 5511, a measure backed by the Governor, has sailed through the Senate, and has now appeared in the House. The bill establishes a State Broadband Office and earmarks funding for local broadband initiatives.
The bill is on the agenda for today's House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee meeting at 10 a.m. PDT.
Difficult But Doable
In order to bring high-quality Internet access to all of Washington, millions and possibly billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are required. No one is certain how much completing the task will cost, and obtaining a better estimate will be one of the tasks of the State Broadband Office (SBO), which will be created by SB 5511. The bill allocates $1.2 million for the SBO.
Rural communities, economic development organizations, and tribes have all supported a measure to establish state investment in broadband infrastructure deployment across Washington. In January, Inslee met with leaders from communities across the state, including Colville Business Council member Susie Allen representing the Colville Tribes, to discuss the need for state funding:
“I have been working on broadband initiatives on our reservation for many years, but unfortunately, substantially, we still remain under-served and unserved, without broadband services,” said Allen. “The Colville Tribes have invested several millions of dollars to begin to meet this need, but we require assistance from the state and federal agencies to complete this work… The lack of broadband service creates not just an inconvenience, but poses real safety concerns throughout the reservation.”
The Colville Tribe has invested $6 million in order to connect the tribal government and under the terms of SB 5511, they would qualify to receive more funding in grants and low-interest loans.
Urban areas in North Carolina don’t have the same challenges obtaining high-quality Internet access as rural communities, but telephone and electric co-ops are taking more steps to change that imbalance. Cooperatives are filling gaps and finding opportunities where national ISPs don't see a high enough profit margin. Wilkes Communications/RiverStreet Networks and TriCounty Telephone recently merged to find those gaps and serve North Carolinians left behind.
Acquiring and Expanding
In September 2018, TriCounty Telephone Membership Corporation merged with Wilkes Telephone Membership, the parent entity of Wilkes Communications and RiverStreet Networks. The cooperative also acquired Peoples Mutual Telephone Company and Peoples Mutual Long Distance Company, which took Wilkes into southern Virginia.
When they added several other smaller companies, the cooperative continued to implement their strategy to bring broadband to rural communities without limiting themselves to one region. In addition to counties in central North Carolina, the cooperative now serves people along the north border, in a few south central counties, and in three counties far in eastern North Carolina that brush the eastern shore.
President and CEO Eric Cramer told the Journal Patriot in September that, where national ISPs turn away, Wilkes sees opportunity:
“Larger companies have abandoned these areas, so we think there is an advantage to grow there. A number of rural counties are looking to partner with companies like ours to help bring broadband like we’ve done here in Wilkes. .... These buildouts are much harder and take longer to produce results than acquisitions.”
Merging with TriCounty made sense because TriCounty had reached its potential due to size and scale limitations. TriCounty’s Vice President for business development Greg Coltrain recently told WNCT Channel 9 that the cooperative was considering the quickest way to bringing high-quality Internet access to rural North Carolina and achieve long-term success when they chose to merge with Wilkes:
Iowa communities that suffer from poor connectivity and want better broadband infrastructure now have another possible funding source, but they need to take action before March 15, 2019. Iowa’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) is now making $1.3 million in grants available to specific areas that want to improve local connectivity.
In addition to Internet access providers, local governments, utilities, and “other entities that provide or intend to provide broadband service” are eligible to apply and receive funding. Projects that can receive funding must be new projects that have not started installation of broadband infrastructure. “Broadband” is consistent with the FCC’s definition of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
Funding of up to 15 percent of the estimated cost of a broadband project is available.
The awards are specifically meant to be distributed to projects that will serve “targeted areas” within the state. Those areas — deemed as locations where no provider offers broadband as defined by the FCC — cover large portions of the state . The OCIO has provided a map visualizing where those many targeted areas are across Iowa. With the “Open Map in New Window” option, users can submit specific information, such as addresses and census blocks, to determine if a location is within a “targeted area.” The blue areas indicate "targeted areas."
- Applications are only accepted through the Iowa Grants System between February 18th and March 15, 2019.
- Applications will not be accepted prior to February 18th, 2019.
- All questions should be submitted to the OCIO before January 11th, 2019 at ociogrants(at)iowa.gov.
- For detailed information on the application, check out the OCIO Broadband Grants page, where the office has provided examples, guides, and checklists to help with your application.
Good luck, Iowa communities!
This past summer, a group of Portlanders with digital equity as a primary goal, launched Municipal Broadband PDX. The grassroots organization seeks to mobilize folks from the Rose City to let their local leaders know that they’d like local government to take the lead in bringing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the entire city. At their official kick-off, our own Christopher Mitchell spoke to the crowd along with Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who pledged her support to the initiative. Now Municipal Broadband PDX is asking Portlanders to answer a call to action to move to the next phase.
A first and important step for any community considering investing in high-quality Internet access infrastructure is to conduct a feasibility study. Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved $150,000 for a broadband study earlier this year along with the communities of Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, and Wood Village. Municipal Broadband PDX has applied to the City of Portland for a special appropriations grant program. The group is requesting $100,000 to add to the pledges from the county and the other municipalities. The Portland City Council is considering the grant applications and results will be announced on November 26th.
Municipal Broadband PDX asks that supporters contact Portland elected officials and request that the project receive the grant. If you’re interested in making an impact and letting your elected representatives know that you support learning more about local options with a feasibility study, now is your opportunity.
The group has drafted a sample email and a draft voice mail message, along with contact information for decision makers. You can find the drafts and information here.
More on Municipal Broadband PDX
Lawmakers in Ohio are slowly advancing a proposal to help fund rural broadband deployment. HB 378 has similarities to Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Program and will infuse $100 million in to broadband deployment ecosystem over the next two years. It’s a welcome lift for rural areas struggling to fend off economic dilemmas.
Last fall, State Senators Cliff Hite and Joe Schiavoni announced their intention to introduce a bill with the same effect. HB 378, however, appeared to pick up steam in March and, after strong bipartisan support in committee and on the floor of the House, the bill went on to the Senate on April 12th.
Back in October, Schiavoni said in a press release:
“This legislation is incredibly important to Ohio’s future. Without access to broadband internet service, businesses can’t reach their customers, students can’t do their homework and workers have difficulty searching for jobs.”
Democrat Ryan Smith and Republican Jack Cera introduced HB 378 with an eye toward economic development in their districts and other rural areas of the state facing the need to diversify their local economies.
“With this bill, we have the opportunity to level the playing field for rural Ohioans when it comes to vital broadband infrastructure,” said Rep. Smith [in October]. “High speed broadband is the only way we can continue growing our economic base by attracting new commercial development and securing a strong labor force, our most valuable resource.”
Electric cooperatives in Virginia are continuing to transform connectivity in the state’s rural communities. With funding assistance from state and local government, projects in Mecklenburg and Appomattox Counties will soon be moving forward.
Building Out Mecklenburg
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRCC) was formed when the state, along with Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Texas, chose to break off from a Master Settlement Agreement between the largest tobacco companies and the remaining 46 states. The proceeds from their separate settlement have been used for broadband and other projects to diversify the economy. The TRCC administers grants and a loan fund.
Last fall, the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) announced that they planned to upgrade their fiber optic network infrastructure to connect substations and district offices. The board of directors decided that the upgrade would give them the perfect opportunity to engage in a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project. As part of the project, MEC entered into an agreement to use the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC) fiber backbone.
The cooperative applied for a grant from TRRC and recently learned that they've been awarded $2.6 million for the $5.2 million project. They've dubbed the initiative the EmPower Broadband Cooperative.
EmPower will begin by offering 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical Internet service for approximately $65 - $75 per month; VoIP will also be available. Members within 1,000 feet of the backbone that MEC deploys will have the ability to sign up for the service. Like other pilot projects, MEC will use the opportunity to fine tune the service and gage interest before they decide whether or not to take EmPower to the rest of their electric service area and possibly beyond.
A bill making its way through the Colorado General Assembly is tackling one of the tools that big incumbent ISPs use to secure their positions as monopoly Internet access providers - the right of first refusal. If HB 1099 passes, and other states see the savvy behind this approach, community leaders and advocates for a competitive broadband market will be able to put a chink in the monopoly armor.
Update: HB 1099 passed the Legislature and the Governor signed the bill into law on April 2nd, 2018. Yay!
A Familiar Story
ISP entrepreneurs, cooperatives that want to offer high-quality Internet access, and entities planning publicly owned projects know the story. Grants are available, usually for an unserved or underserved area that the incumbent DSL provider has ignored. Said entity invests the time and money into developing a plan and applying for the grant, feeling good about the fact that they will likely be able to serve this community that no one else seems to want to serve.
They apply for the grant, may even receive a preliminary approval, BUT then the incumbent ISP exercises its right of first refusal, which throws a very big wrench into the plans of the ISP entrepreneur, cooperative, or entity.
In June 2017, we interviewed Doug Seacat from Clearnetworx and Deeply Digital in Colorado who told us the story of how his company had applied for and won grant funding through the Colorado Broadband Fund to develop fiber Internet network infrastructure near Ridgway. CenturyLink exercised its right of first refusal, which meant that unless Seacat could change the mind of the board that considered the appeal, CenturyLink would get the funding rather than Clearnetworx.
In southern California, an electric cooperative provides high-speed Internet service and continues to expand, meeting the needs of its 4,000 rural members. With community support, Anza Electric has navigated paperwork, construction delays, and more challenges. In May 2018, the California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether or not to award a grant of $2.2 million for Anza Electric’s fiber network project, Connect Anza.
We spoke with Anza Electric’s General Manager Kevin Short to learn more about the grant proposal and the project timeline. In July 2017, we reported that Anza Electric had submitted the grant application for a rural area south of Mount Jacinto in Riverside County. Short provided us with an update and more information on why this area was not part of the co-op’s first Internet access project.
2018 Grant Application
This area in Riverside County follows scenic highway 74 and includes the communities of Pinyon Pines, Garner Valley, and Mountain Center. The project will provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service to the rural co-op members. The co-op will also provide free high-speed Internet access to local fire stations and the Ronald McDonald camp for children with cancer.
In total, the project costs $3.7 million, but the co-op has about $1.5 million to devote to the project. They hope to obtain the remaining $2.2 million from the California Advanced Services Fund through the California Public Utilities Commission. Anza Electric applied for the grant last year. More than 600 people have already signed onto a petition to support the co-op’s application. (Read the petition here.) The California Public Utilities Commission vote in May 2018 on the grant, which will significantly reduce the amount of time the co-op will need to connect the proposed project area.
In the early 2000s, Carroll County, Maryland, invested in publicly owned fiber infrastructure to reduce costs and improve services for public schools, county government, and Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). In addition to meeting that goal, the county’s asset connected to the Westminster Fiber Network, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) partnership that’s brought gigabit connectivity to a community that once struggled with poor Internet access. In order to build off that success in other parts of the county, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners recently voted to allocate $400,000 to provide grants for more Carroll County Fiber Network expansion.
Second Year In A Row
The funding for 2018 follows last year’s decision to provide $1 million to expand the network. Department of Economic Development executive director Denise Beaver told that Carroll County Times that the county’s broadband committee recommended the grants because ISPs’ reasons for not investing in the rural parts of the county were primarily connected to the cost of deploying fiber.
Carroll County's elected officials decided last year to focus on connecting industrial parks and directed staff to communicate with municipal leaders to learn more about opportunities for fiber in downtown areas to spur economic development.
The Carroll County Broadband Grant Program will provide grants of up to $25,000 per project to ISPs or other entities that ensure a 50 percent matching reimbursement. Each entity can receive no more than $100,000 per fiscal year. Eligibility includes a range of types of projects, including those that involve “…the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities or spectrum, land, towers or buildings used to deploy broadband service for business and residentially-based businesses.”
Entities that want to apply for the grants need to be searching for funding that will bring connectivity to “unserved or underserved” areas. The county has decided to define those types of areas for purpose of the grants: