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An effort to add broadband to the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s (NHEC) charter will end on October 14th after a month-long membership vote which began in September. If it passes, it will represent a new era for the co-op and open the way for better connectivity for tens of thousands living in the state.
Back in June a ballot initiative fell short by two percentage points of the threshold needed to change the cooperative’s governing documents. A grassroots organizing campaign and Board vote immediately thereafter, however, affirmed both the membership’s and the new Board’s commitment to broadband as essential infrastructure.
In mid-August the Board voted unanimously to propose amendments to the NHEC’s charter, and in September President and CEO Steve Camarino went on the New Hampshire Business Review’s podcast to talk about how important connectivity is for all in the state and the role NHEC could play in bringing better access to those in its service territory and beyond. Per procedure, all 85,000 members of the electric cooperative were given a chance to vote by mail or electronically starting in the middle of September, and the window closes on Wednesday.
As it stands, NHEC bylaws [pdf] allow it to pursue projects like broadband, but current policy and procedure requires an approval process which prevents it the flexibility and speed it needs to do take advantage of state and federal funds and make broadband-related capital investments. The change under consideration would allow members as well as the Board to move with the same speed it is allowed to on electric utility service projects for broadband ones as well. The current requirement on non-electric utility service involves a months-long membership vote. From the co-op’s website:
AT&T Is Abandoning Tens of Thousands of American Households in the Deep South Who Have No Other Internet Access Option
All across the country, municipal networks, cooperatives, and cities have been putting in extra effort to make sure that Americans have the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they need to conduct their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AT&T has decided to take another route. A USA Today report last week revealed that the company has stopped making connections to users subscribing to its ADSL Internet as of October 1st. Anyone calling the company to set up new service is being told that no new accounts are being accepted.
The decision comes right as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has released a report detailing that only 28% of AT&T’s territory can get fiber from the company. AT&T has deliberately focused investment in more urban areas of higher income. From the report:
The analysis of AT&T’s network reveals that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier areas, and leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies. Across the country, the median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL only — $60,969 compared to $45,500.
The Deep South Hit Hardest
As of today, it looks like the most conservative number of those affected by the decision will be about 80,000 households that have no other option. Our analysis using the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Form 477 data shows that the Deep South will be hit the hardest (see table at the bottom of the page).
Collectively it means more than 207,000 Americans who, if disconnected, will have no option for Internet aside from their mobile devices or satellite service. The number of Americans affected by the decision but which have additional wireline options is higher: roughly 2.2 million American households nationwide subscribe to the service (see map, below).
One silver lining of the ongoing public health crisis is the chance to attend a wide array of virtual events which tackle aspects of community broadband expansion all across the country, in a variety of contexts. This week features three opportunities to hear about what’s going on in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Read on for details.
Blandin Foundation Annual Conference
First up is Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation’s annual conference. It’s gone virtual for 2020, and the organization has taken it as an opportunity to shake things up. Instead of a three-day conference, Blandin is hosting four weeks’ worth of events starting Tuesday, October 6th, at 9am CST.
The conference will feature a combination of panels with updates on everything from technology outreach to telehealth to efforts by community anchor institutions to stay connected, as well as mentoring sessions, regulatory and legislative updates, and feature presentations by leading voices:
Over the last few months, a number of cities across the country have recognized the pressing need to find a way to get those in their community without Internet access connected. In San Rafael, California, San Antonio, Texas, and Champaign, Illinois, local governments along with a variety of philanthropic, technical, and private partners have developed a host of innovative ways to bring fixed wireless solutions to neighborhoods in need.
The city of McAllen (pop. 140,000) — near the mouth of the Rio Grande, at the southern tip of Texas — offers some additional lessons to be learned and a blueprint for success for other local governments thinking of doing the same. Quietly over the summer, it collected broadband data, designed, and deployed a fixed wireless network which to date covers more than three dozen neighborhoods and provides free connectivity for the city’s students and residents.
Fiber From the Water Tower
Citywide Wi-Fi has been a long time coming in McAllen. Mayor Jim Dalson and the IT Department have wanted to do it for years, IT Director Robert Acosta said in an interview, but finding a way to pay for it has been the major barrier. In the meantime, his department has been adding wireless coverage to public spaces for the past half decade, at city parks, outside of government facilities, at the Museum of Art and Science, and at the Boys and Girls club. He also extended the network to traffic cameras, water towers, and other government facilities, and when the pandemic hit his department had more than 60 miles of fiber to call upon.
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
Choptank Electric to Bring Broadband to Maryland's Eastern Shore Following New Law and Membership Vote
Almost 54,000 electric cooperative residents will see the benefits of a statewide law change in Maryland after a summer filled with changes. After a state vote to allow deregulation, Choptank Electric, which serves member owners across nine counties in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, voted in August to become member-regulated so that the cooperative can pursue broadband projects in a part of the state that has long suffered from poor or no connectivity options.
A State Law and a Membership Vote
The process unfolded earlier this year, when representatives for the co-op spoke with the legislature in Annapolis about offering broadband to its members. State law at the time meant that electric utilities were regulated by the Public Service Commission, which prevented them from entering the broadband space.
The Eastern Shore sits across Chesapeake Bay, with 450,000 people living across its nine counties. Driven by a lack of connectivity options and a desire for economic development, area legislators submitted HB 999, which drew support from dozens of businesses, 1,200 current Choptank customers, and a number of local governments. The “Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020” [pdf] passed the state legislature on May 8th, 2020, and freed the co-op from regulation by the Public Service Commission. Talbot County resident Pamela Keeton testified to the Senate Finance Committee:
The bottom line is, no one wants to pay taxes and no one wants to spend money, so we’re left with no Internet service.
Another year of the Broadband Communities annual summit is behind us, and it’s worth revisiting the most salient moments from the panels that touched on the wealth and variety of issues related to community broadband regulation, financing, and expansion today and in the future. We weren’t able to make it to every panel, but read on for the highlights.
Last Mile Infrastructure and the Limits of CARES Funding
The first day of the program saw some heavyweight sessions from Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) on last mile digital infrastructure. For communities at all stages of broadband exploration and investment — whether exploring an initial feasibility study, putting together an RFP, or already planning for the future by laying conduit as part of other projects — partnerships dominated the discussion, with timing and debt also serving as common themes.
ILSR’s Christopher Mitchel helped kick off the conference by moderating the first panel in the Rural/Editor's Choice track, and was joined by Peggy Schaffer from Maine's Broadband Office (ConnectME), Monica Webb from Internet Service Provider (ISP) Ting, and Roger Timmerman, CEO of Utah middle-mile network UTOPIA Fiber.
The group discussed the open access models to start, and the benefits that could be realized from two- or three-layer systems. UTOPIA Fiber has seen some explosive growth and spearheaded significant innovation recently as it continues to provide wholesale service to ISPs that want to deliver retail service on the network. Ting, which recently signed on to be one of two providers on SiFi Network’s first FiberCity in Fullerton, California, also acts as an example of what can happen when we break away from thinking about infrastructure investment and Internet access as one-entity-doing-it-all.
Over the summer, Windstream and Colquitt Electric Membership Corporation announced that the two entities will work together to expand fiber optic Internet access throughout the electric co-op’s service territory in rural south Georgia. Windstream, the fifth largest telephone company in the nation, will maintain ownership of the newly deployed network and use it to offer its Kinetic broadband services to residents and businesses, while Colquitt, which has more than 45,000 members, will take advantage of the fiber connectivity to improve the management of its electric grid.
The announcement came one year after Georgia lawmakers clarified that electric cooperatives in the state are able to invest in broadband infrastructure to serve their members and established guidelines for co-ops that want to get into the business.
Working Out the Details
According to Telecompetitor, the project will expand Fiber-to-the-Home connectivity and gigabit speeds to Colquitt members who currently have access to Windstream’s much slower DSL services.
Windstream plans to use Colquitt’s labor force and its Rights-of-Way and electric poles to help deploy the network, but the telephone company will own the actual fiber optic lines. Colquitt will receive an indefeasible right of use (IRU) for some of the fiber capacity for internal uses and smart grid applications.
That community networks act as a positive force in the broadband market is something we’ve covered for the better part of a decade, but a new study out in the journal Telecommunications Policy adds additional weight (along with lots of graphs and tables) which shows that states which enact barriers to entry for municipalities and cooperatives do their residents a serious disservice.
“State Broadband Policy: Impacts on Availability” by Brian Whitacre (Oklahoma State University) and Robert Gallardo (Purdue University), out in the most recent issue of the journal, demonstrates that enacting effective state policies have a significant and undeniable impact on the pace of basic broadband expansion in both rural and urban areas, as well as speed investment in fiber across the United States.
Digging into the Data
The research relies on the State Broadband Policy Explorer, released in July of 2019 by Pew Charitable Trusts, and focuses on broadband availability across the country from 2012-2018. Whitacre and Gallardo control for the other common factors which can affect whether an area has broadband or not (like household income, education, and the age of the development), and combine the FCC’s Form 477 census block-level data along with county-level data to explore expansion activities over the seven-year period. By making use of an analytical model called the Generalized Method of Moments, Whitacre and Gallardo are able to track all of these variables over a period of time to show that there is a statistically robust connection between specific state policies and their influence on the expansion of broadband Internet access all over the United States.
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.”