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A massive coalition of more than 300 broadband policy experts and organizations have written a letter to the U.S. government, warning that smaller broadband providers, nonprofits, and municipalities will be elbowed out of an historic $42.45 billion broadband grant program without some notable changes to program rules.
At the heart of their concerns sits the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, made possible by the recently passed infrastructure bill, and administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The grant program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put a significant dent in America’s longstanding digital divide.
But BEAD program rules currently require grant recipients to obtain a letter of credit (LOC) from a bank, collateralized by cash or cash-equivalent. They also require grant winners to provide "matching funds of not less than 25 percent of project costs," though the latter restriction can be waived in some high deployment cost areas.
While the restrictions were intended to reduce the risk of project failure (a touchy subject for the government in the wake of problems with the FCC’s RDOF program), they require grant recipients to lock away vast and untouchable sums of capital for the duration of any broadband build, most of which last several years.
The American Association for Public Broadband is calling for industry help in creating a handbook that helps communities examine their option to create and maintain public broadband networks.
The handbook will be a “hands-on, high-level resource for moving through the entire process including getting started, building community support, technology and business case analysis, role of partners and finance,” said Gigi Sohn, executive director at AAPB.
Sohn asked for leaders for public broadband networks, including both government-owned and cooperatives to complete a public broadband inventory. AAPB will sort through the submissions and select folks to interview for more details.
The inventory asks for network elements, public benefits of the network, what financing has been used to build and operate the network, among other questions. Respondents can indicate whether the data in the survey is available to be publicly released or not.
The AAPB will consider how it can fully capture value from this inventory and may decide to include all or much of it online in a database.
Responses are required by Friday, September 8, 2023.
Vendors, consultants, and other leaders in public broadband are invited to share the survey with those that are eligible to respond.
Doubling the Number of Municipal Networks in the Next Five Years - Episode 563 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
May 2022 witnessed something remarkable: the birth of a new nonprofit advocacy organization whose sole purpose was to speak up for the hundreds of communities that have built municipal broadband networks, and the thousands more that want to but don't know where to start. Now, the American Association for Public Broadband has named as its Executive Director as Gigi Sohn, former Biden nominee to the Federal Communications Commission. And she's ready to get to work.
Gigi joins Christopher on the podcast this week to talk about standing up support systems to promote and defend community-driven models to double the number of municipal systems in the next five years - including providing resources and countering dark-money astroturf campaigns - while also making sure the Internet stays as open and equitable as possible, and not squandering the promise of BEAD.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
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 Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
In this week’s round-up of broadband news, we culled three stories we think are worth reading.
How Much is Fast Enough?
The first is a story from Ars Technica – FCC chair: Speed standard of 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up isn’t good enough anymore – written by veteran IT reporter Jon Brodkin.
For years now, broadband-for-all advocates have lamented the FCC’s minimum broadband speed standard of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload as being laughably antiquated. Indeed, it’s been almost three years since we made the case for Why 25/3 Broadband Is Not Sufficient, though it was outdated long before then.
But as Brodkin reported this week, the FCC’s minimum speed standard “could finally change under Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who is proposing a fixed broadband standard of 100Mbps downloads and 20Mbps uploads along with a goal of bringing affordable service at those speeds to all Americans.”
Under Rosenworcel’s plan, the FCC would look at availability, speeds, and prices to determine whether the agency should take regulatory actions under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which requires the FCC to determine if high-speed Internet access is being deployed "on a reasonable and timely basis" to all Americans.
Bountiful, Utah officials and community broadband advocates are breathing a sigh of relief as the Utah Taxpayers Association’s “Gather Utah” petition to stop the city from building an open-access network in partnership with UTOPIA Fiber fell short.
This past Friday was the deadline for “Gather Utah” to collect enough signatures for a petition that would have forced a citywide vote on the $48 million in revenue bonds authorized in May by city councilors to fund network construction.
In a press statement, City Manager Gary Hill said: “hired signature gatherers ultimately failed to collect enough signatures from registered voters to advance the opposition campaign.”
Bountiful Mayor Kendalyn Harris added:
“Bountiful is a unique city. Our residents started this process. They organized a ‘Fiber for Bountiful’ campaign that led to a thorough consideration of many options. We now look forward to offering a vital service to residents and businesses in an increasingly digital world.”
Now, after three years of study and more than two dozen public meetings, Bountiful Fiber will begin construction next month. As we previously reported, the city-owned fiber optic network will provide gigabit speeds to residents and businesses who subscribe for service.
Earlier this month American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB) President Gigi Sohn wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune about how the “Gather Utah” campaign (backed by the cable industry) tried to derail the city’s project. After news of the petition failure, Sohn said:
Now that there’s broad consensus high-speed Internet connectivity should be universally accessible, there’s no shortage of broadband news/content floating around out there.
There’s the wheat (more truthful, useful, and informative stuff); the chafe (a mundane grain of truth buried under a steaming pile of bs), and a vast spectrum of perspectives in between.
In this new space we will highlight insightful news stories, blog posts, podcasts, or videos we’ve come across over the past week or so – with an eye to separate the signal from the noise.
Downloading now …
What Happened to Gigi?
While the FCC has been defanged in many ways, the agency is still at the center of our shared telecommunication ecosystem. So when President Biden nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as the fifth and final commissioner to break the 2-2 partisan deadlock at the agency, numerous consumer and public interest groups were ecstatic. The nation’s telecommunication workers backed her nomination. She even had the respect and quiet support of a number of conservative lawmakers.
But her nomination was sunk by a vicious smear campaign, which led her to withdraw herself from consideration in March.
At the Broadband Communities Summit in May she described the process both like being put in a “washing machine full of rocks” and going through “a 16 month proctology exam.”
In the Salt Lake City suburb some call “the garden spot of Utah,” Bountiful, Utah officials have settled on a plan to bring Bountiful Fiber and affordable connectivity to its residents and businesses.
The city will own the network and lease it out to multiple private Internet service providers (ISPs) – a model that city manager Gary Hill described as a way to create “a competitive marketplace for Internet service providers."
In a letter to city councilors before the bond issuance was authorized, Hill wrote: "Resident requests and sentiment ... demonstrate a need for city involvement to provide adequate, competitive, reliable broadband services.”
After issuing an RFP in November of last year, the city contracted with the nation’s largest open access network – UTOPIA Fiber – to build, operate, and maintain the network. It is expected that construction will take about 2 to 3 years to complete, though some subscribers will likely be lit up for service within 18 months of the start of construction, scheduled to begin this month.
Dark Money Looks to Torpedo Project
A dark money campaign spearheaded by the Utah Taxpayers Association (UTA), however, is threatening to derail the project. The group, whose annual conference is sponsored by Comcast and CenturyLink/Lumen, is backing a “Gather Utah” initiative to obtain signatures for a petition that would stop the city from building the network.
Concerns are mounting that over $2.8 billion in potential broadband grants doled out by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could be wasted, further eroding the already well-criticized program’s disjointed effort to expand broadband access across rural America.
In 2019, the Ajit Pai FCC created the $20.4 billion RDOF with an eye on shoring up affordable broadband access in traditionally unserved rural U.S. markets. The money was to be doled out via reverse auction in several phases, with winners often declared based on having the maximum impact for minimum projected cost.
During phase one of the program, the FCC stated that 180 bidders won $9.2 billion over 10 years to provide broadband to 5.2 million locations across 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. But of the $9.2 billion in winners, over $2.8 billion has gone into default, meaning the bidder couldn’t actually deliver on promised projects.
We've tracked the RDOF awards since the auction concluded, including for the providers that defaulted on their wins.
These issues have not only imperiled RDOF program funding, but have thrown a wrench in the works of numerous additional government efforts to shore up broadband access, from the FCC’s long-criticized quest to accurately map U.S. broadband access, to the implementation of newer grant programs overseen by other agencies.
Two months after President Biden’s belated and long-stalled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee withdrew her nomination after a year-long attack campaign against her, today at the Broadband Communities Summit in Houston, Texas, Gigi Sohn announced her next move: Sohn will serve as the first Executive Director for the American Association of Public Broadband (AAPB).
A non-profit organization formed by a group of municipal officials, AAPB’s mission is to advance advocacy efforts on behalf of publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks. Since the organization first announced its formation at the Broadband Communities Summit in May of 2022, it has been working to educate federal and state policymakers who “have turned to the telecom lobby for help and are receiving biased guidance” on the community broadband networks approach, just as $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is set to flow to state governments to expand high-speed Internet access this summer.
During a keynote luncheon at the summit, Sohn was joined by AAPB founding board members Bob Knight and Kimberly McKinley on the main stage for a candid discussion in which she reflected on the state of Internet access in the U.S. and her experience that led to her to withdraw her nomination to the FCC. Near the end of the luncheon she announced her new role with AAPB, which was greeted by a standing ovation from the hundreds of attendees in the audience.
Freedom to Choose Community Broadband Future
The announcement was followed by a press briefing where she elaborated on her vision for AAPB.
“I will be the first Executive Director of the American Association of Public Broadband. Until now, there has not been a membership-based advocacy organization that works to ensure that public broadband can grow unimpeded by anti-competitive barriers. That’s despite the success of public broadband to help places like Chattanooga and the Massachusetts Berkshires transform from sleepy hamlets to vibrant centers of economic opportunity, education and culture,” she said at the press briefing.
Last Friday was a major milestone in the process of moving $42.5 billion from the federal government to states to distribute mostly to rural areas to build new, modern Internet access networks. January 13th marked the deadline for error corrections (called challenges) to the official national map that will be used to determine how much each state will get.
As an organization that has worked in nearly all 50 states over the past 20 years on policies to improve Internet access, we spent the last few weeks struggling to understand what was actually at stake and wondering if we were alone in being confused about the process. Despite the stakes, almost no expert we talked to actually understood which challenges – if any – would fix errors in the map data before it was used to allocate the largest single federal broadband investment in history.