Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
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Blue River, Colorado (est. pop. 882) is the latest Colorado municipality to explore building its own broadband network with an eye on affordable access. The town is part of a trend that’s only accelerated since the state eliminated industry-backed state level protections restricting community-owned broadband networks.
Just south of Breckenridge in the central part of the state, Blue River is nestled in one of the more rural parts of Summit County. Comcast (Xfinity) enjoys a broadband monopoly, resulting in spotty access, slow speeds, and high prices. Locals also routinely complain that cell phone service remains spotty in much of the mountainous area.
In response, town leaders recently hired the consulting firm, NEO Connect, to explore the possibility of building a town-wide fiber network. According to a feasibility study presented to the Blue River Board of Trustees by Mayor Toby Babich, the construction of a fiber network serving every town resident will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million.
While that “may seem out of reach,” Babich recently told the board, “we believe with the right funding and partnership we can move forward with this project.”
The estimates for network construction range somewhere between $7 million to $24 million, depending on how much underground trenching work is required.
This is a walk and chew gum moment for broadband-for-all advocates. On the one hand, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) new digital discrimination rules have the potential to reign in egregious examples of digital discrimination. On the other hand, the new rules still fall short of putting forward the kinds of structural solutions necessary to address underinvestment in communities where federal infrastructure dollars may never reach.
Last week, the FCC published its final digital discrimination rules, giving the agency the authority to penalize Internet Service Providers (ISPs) whose policies have a “disparate impact” on historically marginalized communities. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed by President Biden in 2021, included a mandate directing the FCC to develop “rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, taking into account the issues of technical and economic feasibility presented by that objective, including—preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”
After hosting listening sessions and inviting public comment, the final ruling ultimately defined digital discrimination as “policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that (1) differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service […], or (2) are intended to have such differential impact.” Such an approach authorizes the FCC to penalize providers even if it can’t identify instances of intentional discrimination.
Initial Responses to the Ruling
In 2021, California passed Senate Bill 156, an ambitious plan allocating $6 billion to shore up affordable broadband access throughout the state.
Among the most notable of the bill’s proposals was a plan to spend $3.25 billion on an open-access statewide broadband middle-mile network backers say could transform competition in the state.
An additional $2 billion has also been earmarked for last mile deployment. Both components will be heavily funded by Coronavirus relief funds and federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) subsidies as well as California State Government grants – with all projects to be finished by December 2026 as per federal funding rules.
But while California’s proposal has incredible potential, activists and digital equity advocates remain concerned that the historic opportunity could be squandered due to poor broadband mapping, a notable lack of transparency, and the kind of political dysfunction that has long plagued the Golden State.
Massive Scale, Big Money, Endless Moving Parts
Still, California’s prioritization of open access fiber networks could prove transformative.
Data routinely indicates that open access fiber networks lower market entry costs, boost overall competition, and result in better, cheaper, faster Internet access. Unsurprisingly, such networks are often opposed by entrenched regional monopolies that have grown fat and comfortable on the back of muted competition.
The Otter Creek Communications Union District (CUD) has been awarded a $9.9 million grant by the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB). It’s the latest effort by the state to use CUDs to deliver affordable fiber broadband access to the long-neglected rural corners of Vermont.
According to the CUD’s announcement, the funding will help deploy affordable fiber access to roughly 4,100 homes and businesses by 2025. The fiber deployment will be done in partnership with Consolidated Communications, which says it has deployed fiber to 110,000 Vermont homes and businesses since 2021.
The deployment should ultimately bring broadband access to 85 percent of homes and businesses in the Otter Creek CUD area, which covers 17 towns and one city in and near Rutland, Vermont in the southwestern part of the state as 2,300 of the locations targeted by this latest round of funding currently have no access to any broadband service whatsoever.
“We’re excited to work collaboratively with Consolidated to bring future-proof Internet to the 18 communities within our CUD,” Otter Creek CUD Chair Laura Black said in a statement. “This funding will put us well on our way to meeting the goal of universal service in the Rutland region, bringing all the opportunities that come with reliable, high-speed internet. The Otter Creek CUD board is proud to be on the way to bringing the broadband infrastructure this community needs to participate in the global economy.”
With the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) on track to run out of funds by spring/early summer 2024, finally there is a request from the White House to extend funding for the program that over 21 million housholds now rely on to help pay for high-speed Internet service.
Last week, the Biden administration formally asked Congress for another $6 billion to extend the program through November 2024, joining a chorus of public interest groups (including AARP) calling on Congress to replenish the rapidly depleting fund.
(According to our calculations, an additional $6 billion would not fund the program through December 2024 as the White House said. It would fund the program through the end of November 2024. It would take $6.9B to get through the end of December).
First established with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021 as part of the Biden administration’s “Internet for All” initiative, the ACP – currently administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – provides income-eligible households with a $30 monthly subsidy ($75 per month for those living on Tribal lands) to pay for their Internet service bill. The program also provides a one-time $100 benefit to go towards the purchase of an Internet-connected device such as a laptop or tablet.
Butler Electric Cooperative and its Velocity broadband subsidiary say they’re making meaningful progress in bringing fixed wireless access (FWA) — and ultimately fiber optic broadband — to long-neglected sections of rural south-central Kansas. It’s the latest example of electrical cooperatives playing a leading role in the longstanding quest to bridge the digital divide.
Butler Electric Cooperative, which provides electrical service to 7,000 meters via 1,850 miles of transmission and distribution lines, created Velocity in 2018 as part of the cooperative’s expansion into broadband access.
The service currently provides fixed wireless access to roughly 5,500 rural Kansas residents, long left out of reach of traditional cable, fiber, or DSL due to the logistical challenges and high cost of rural deployment.
The company’s current service tiers range from a 15 megabit per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream tier for $60 a month, to a 100 Mbps downstream, 10 Mbps upstream tier for $84 a month. Both tiers feature a one-time installation fee of $200. The higher pricing generally reflects the higher prices of deployment to remote, rural areas.
Velocity CEO Kevin Brownless tells Telecompetitor that the company tries to keep consumer-facing pricing as close to cost as possible, and that Velocity and Butler plan to drive fiber into these markets over the coming years thanks to federal subsidies.
Vermont’s nascent Communication Union Districts (CUD) are pioneering creative efforts to deploy affordable broadband to the rural parts of the Green Mountain State. That includes the Lamoille FiberNet CUD, which has greenlit a major new plan to expand affordable access to fiber in the most neglected parts of rural Vermont.
At an Aug. 14th meeting, the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) approved Lamoille FiberNet’s $1.3 million pre-construction grant, followed by a mid-September approval of the CUD’s $13.6 million construction grant.
“This grant means that, by the end of 2024, we can bring high-speed internet to almost all the homes and businesses in our CUD that are unserved or underserved,” Lamoille FiberNet Communications CUD Chair Jeff Tilton said in a statement.
With the Lamoille CUD covering 10 towns in the north central part of the state (Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Elmore, Hyde Park, Johnson, Morristown, Stowe, Waterville and Wolcott), Lamoille plans to have Fidium Fiber and Consolidated Communications deploy and manage 630 miles of new fiber connecting more than 4,800 unserved and underserved Lamoille County homes and businesses. The network will be deployed in two phases.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania has revitalized the city’s long percolating plan for a municipal broadband network, this time via a public-private partnership (PPP) with Shenandoah Telecommunications Company (Shentel). The city’s quest for more affordable, reliable broadband is a quest that’s taken the better part of a decade to finally come to fruition.
Lancaster city officials recently announced that they’d selected Shentel with an eye on ensuring uniform broadband availability to the city of 57,000.
“In 2022, the City issued an RFP for a partner to achieve stated goals, which received five responses, and led to the selection of Shentel,” the city said. “The contract will result in Shentel installing fiber at its sole cost to provide service to 100% of the city’s residents. Shentel plans to commence design and construction immediately upon execution of the final agreement.”
According to Lancaster officials, the city hired CTC Technology & Energy Engineering & Business Consulting to evaluate the city’s needs. The determination to proceed with a PPP with Shental was driven, in part, by the historic broadband grant opportunities being created thanks to the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the American Rescue Plan Act, the latter of which provided $39.5 million to the city.
As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) continues to move forward in administering the single biggest federal investment to expand high-speed Internet access in U.S. history, each state and U.S. territory is wrestling with how to best spend the windfall as they lay out their Five Year Action Plans and Initial Proposals necessary to claim their portion of the $42.5 billion BEAD program.
One major barrier to providing universal access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet service–long recognized by ILSR, telecom experts, and a growing number of ordinary citizens–are the monopoly-friendly preemption laws that either outright ban or erect insurmountable barriers to building publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks, aka municipal broadband.
Preemption in the BEAD Era
Currently, 17 states have such preemption laws, most of which have filed their Five Year Action Plans and/or their Initial Proposals. In each of those states, at the behest of Big Cable and Telecom incumbents, state lawmakers have erected legislative barriers to municipal broadband to protect the monopoly players from competition, which is at the very heart of why the digital divide exists in the first place and why tens of millions of Americans suffer from the slower speeds and higher costs that go hand in hand with monopoly service.
The key for states to unlock their portion of the $42.5 billion in federal BEAD funds is the submission and approval of their Five Year Action Plans and Final Proposal. The infrastructure law requires states to first file an action plan, and then prepare more detailed Initial Proposals, allowing residents and stakeholders to submit public comments.
So far, 14 states have filed their Five Year Action Plans with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Treasury Department agency in charge of allocating the funds to each state and U.S. territory. According to the NTIA’s website, Maine, Louisiana, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont have all filed their draft Five Year Action Plans.
The states that are now in the process of completing their Initial Proposals include: Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.
Today, we will look at two states (Maine and Louisiana) and follow up with the others as we are getting a clearer picture of how each state intends to put this historic infusion of federal funds to use.