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North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.
This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services. Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.
Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."
A year ago, the FCC accepted applications from entities seeking Connect America funds for rural broadband experiments. After provisional awards and some eliminations, Chanute's FTTH project, Chattanooga's EPB, and a number of additional cooperatives are now on the list of provisional winners reports Telecompetitor.
According to the article, $27 million became available when 16 entities were eliminated for various reasons.
A recent Chanute Tribune article reports that the city's expected award will be approximately $508,000 if it passes the FCC's post-selection process. Mikel Kline, a consultant working closely with the city on its FTTH project told the Tribune:
It is Kline’s understanding that this $508,467 would be cost support for the city’s Fiber to the Home network over the next six years. It requires the city to become an eligible telecommunications carrier, and to finance and construct the fiber network.
This money can be used to pay operational costs or offset a portion of the debt on the city’s investment in the local infrastructure over the next six years.
Remember that Chanute has developed its fiber infrastructure incrementally over more than two decades. The community is moving ahead with its FTTH project to share the benefits of fiber with residents and more businesses after bringing better connectivity to schools, municipal facilities, and a growing number of businesses.
Recently, the city applied for and received state approval to bond for deployment costs. A 1947 state law required the application be filed with the Kansas Corporation Commission, the state entity concerned with utility regulations. According to Kline, the city has also applied for eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) status. This designation will allow the city, as a common telecommunications carrier, to obtain Kansas Universal Services Funds.
On January 30, the FCC announced it will begin a process that makes Connect America funds available for pilot projects aimed at expanding broadband in rural areas. Details about the process are still forthcoming, but the FCC asks interested parties to submit "expressions of interest" by March 7th. In order to assist possible applicants, the National Rural Assembly's Broadband Working Group will hold a webinar today, February 13th, at 1:30 EST.
From the webinar announcement:
The National Rural Assembly's Rural Broadband and Policy Group invites all rural stakeholders, to participate in a national webinar in cooperation with the Federal Communications Commission that will explain how to participate in the FCC's new experiment, the Rural Broadband Trials - a program that will fund projects to bring broadband to rural areas.
Participation in this first phase is not mandatory but encouraged. The results from the expressions of interest process will help the FCC determine how much funding will be needed.
You can register online for the free webinar.
We reported last month on a decision from the FCC to make Connect America funds available to expand broadband. At the time we did not have much detail on the measure, but on January 30th, the FCC released its official statement. The agency reached a unanimous decision to open up Connect America Fund dollars for experimental projects.
The FCC restructured the Universal Services Fund (USF) in 2010 to create the Connect America Fund. Until now, those funds were only available to large incumbents. Because some incumbents did not want to be bound terms associated with the funds, they did not take the money and so a portion of it has not been distributed.
In the January 30th announcement, the FCC stated that it will open up funding to entities other than large incumbents in experimental processes, including nonprofits, cooperatives, municipal and tribal governments, and private businesses. The FTTH Council reported:
Specifically, the Commission’s order outlines a call for multiple pilot projects to examine how best to make the technology transition while preserving consumer welfare and promoting the widespread deployment and use of broadband networks. As part of those projects, the Commission, informed by recommendations of the FTTH Council, will be using “test beds” to experiment with different models of bringing next-generation high-speed broadband to rural areas.
Interested parties must first file an expression of interest, describing how they would invest the funds. In keeping with the original goal of the Connect America fund, the FCC hopes to hear from organizations with rural broadband project plans. According to a Daily Yonder article on the process:
[Jonathan Chambers, the chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis] said the initial “expression of interest” isn’t a complex document. The FCC wants to hear who is interested in applying for support, what homes or institutions they want to serve and an estimate of the cost to get the job done.
Orangeburg County, South Carolina, received $18.65 million in broadband stimulus funds for high-speed broadband (which we previously noted). Unfortunately, AT&T and its friends at ALEC have since pushed through a state law to limit local authority in building networks.
According to the Broadband Adoption Map from the Investigative Reporting Workshop of the American University School of Communication, Orangeburg County has a broadband adoption rate of 20-40% as compared to the national rate of 60%.
Not only has AT&T refused to invest in modern networks in much of South Carolina, it is not even bothering to accept a federal subsidy that would underwrite some of that cost. Which is actually good for the rest of us, because subsidizing any AT&T activities is a very poor use of taxpayer dollars.
But Orangeburg is moving forward on its own. The Orangeburg County Council approved a $2.4 million contract with Edwards Telecommunications to complete the third phase of their project. This phase alone will use 171 miles of fiber and add 902 households to the network. Two more phases are scheduled before the entire project is complete.
According to a Gene Zaleski Times and Democrat article:
Seventy-five percent of the project will be paid for with a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service grant and the remaining 25 percent will be paid for with proceeds from the Orangeburg County capital project sales tax.
In 2010, after receiving the award, the County expressed their optimism in a Phil Sarta article in the Times Democrat: