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The most rural area of Missouri is getting a Fiber-to-the-Home network from the United Electric Cooperative, which has created United Fiber and is expanding across its footprint and to adjacent areas that want better Internet access. Chief Development Officer Darren Farnan joins us to explain why his co-op has taken these steps.
We discuss how they are rolling it out - focusing on areas that need the service while respecting the telephone cooperatives that are within their electric footprint. The project has benefited from a broadband stimulus award and also incorporates fixed wireless technology in some areas.
We discuss some of the economics behind the project and are sure to clarify that though the utility has needed some capital subisides to build the network, it does not need any operating subsidies to continue - it runs under its own revenue. And we talk about the demand for better, faster connections - it is much higher than most realize.
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Thanks to Admiral Bob for the music. The song is Turbo Tornado (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Blue Wave Theory.
Throughout the October Broadband Communities Magazine conference, folks kept repeating this sentiment: some partnerships are smooth and others have rough patches. At the conference, we heard from several electric cooperatives who had partnered with other cooperatives to provide next-generation connectivity to their communities.
We specifically want to highlight the work of two North Carolina electric cooperatives: Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. They were both included in our report North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Each co-op took the bold step of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout sparsely populated regions. At the conference, we were able to learn first-hand about their experiences.
Despite the Distance: Lumbee River EMC & HTC
HTC Chief Executive of Marketing Brent Groome described how the two cooperatives collaborated despite being nearly an hour away from each other. Their work together has involved a commitment to similar values and dedication to improving rural communities. (Lumbee River EMC’s representative was unable to attend the conference as much of the service territory had suffered flooding from the recent hurricane.)
Lumbee River EMC’s entry into Internet service brought fiber connectivity to southeastern North Carolina. The co-op provides electricity to more than 50,000 members. In 2010, the USDA provided Lumbee River EMC with nearly $20 million in funding to install fiber. A state law, however, imposes certain restrictions on electric co-ops and USDA funding. The electric co-op had to find another company with the drive and expertise to provide Internet service.
As of now, 41% of tribal lands do not have high-speed Internet access according to the FCC Broadband Report of 2016 released on January 29, 2016. That same day, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study of high-speed Internet access on tribal lands.
The GAO report (GAO-16-222) reviewed previous federal programs that aimed to improve Internet access and interviewed several tribal entities. The result reveals the perspective of communities impacted by the data and cooperation - or lack of both - among the different federal entities. Long before this report, the FCC had recognized the shortcomings of these programs and began to improve data collection and inter-governmental cooperation.
Highlighted Areas for Improvement
The GAO focused mainly on FCC and USDA programs from 2010 – 2014, especially those that specifically addressed tribal connectivity. GAO researchers collected the perspectives of several tribal entities, which provided useful qualitative data to understand the impact of Internet access on these communities.
Tribal officials noted that the important role the FCC and USDA programs had in expanding high-speed Internet access. Throughout the report are anecdotes of how the several programs have benefitted tribal lands. The outreach efforts of the two federal agencies, however, are not always well coordinated:
“Officials from one tribe said that multiple federal programs offering similar grants were confusing and that a federal one-stop-shop for outreach and training would help them better target the right programs for their situation.“ (p. 22)
The report also touched on the quality of quantitative data. In 2006, there was little meaningful data. Although the situation has improved, reliable data is still lacking. Tribal lands are often rural and sparsely populated, such that census blocks (the basis of much data collection) cover large areas. This method can grossly overstate the availability of Internet access in such an environment.
GAO Recommendations and FCC Action
Montana may have high speed limits on roads, but this Montana coop’s network will let you surf the web even faster. Triangle Communications received an almost $30 million loan from the USDA to provide rural Central Montana with high-speed Internet access.
Triangle Communications will finish upgrading its aging copper network - a technology mostly used for telephone - to a fiber network that can support both telephone and high-speed Internet. The loan comes from the USDA’s initiative, announced in July, promising $85 million to improve connectivity in rural areas. The Triangle Communications coop is upgrading its entire system spanning 16 counties (that’s more than 23,000 square miles from the Canadian to the Wyoming border!).
Since 1953, the coop has been at the forefront of changing technologies. It’s based in Havre but expanded in 1994 with the purchase of 13 exchanges from US West (now known as CenturyLink). The coop began upgrading to fiber in 2009 in order to provide its members with state-of-the-art service and technology.
For more information about the network and the award, check out local news coverage of the almost $30 million loan and Triangle Communications’ video.
Kevin Taglang, recently published an excellent explanatory post for the Benton Foundation entitled What Section 706 Means for Net Neutrality, Municipal Networks, and Universal Broadband. He provides just the right amount of detail to get one up top speed on the upcoming decision and why it promises to be so influential. Additionally, he summarizes many federal programs relating to Internet access.
We already know that February 26th will be an historic day in telecommunications. On that day, the FCC's decision on new network neutrality rules and municipal broadband networks has the potential to literally change millions of lives. The decision will impact education, economic development, jobs, healthcare, communications, utilities - you name it.
Taglang fittingly describes the series of findings from the FCC as a three act play. Read the text of the play, anticipate the conflict, see how the characters clash, and you will be the dramaturge.
Act I: The FCC Considers U.S. Broadband and Finds It Lacking:
In addition to other factors, the FCC looked at the way we defined broadband (4 Mbps/1 Mbps), what capacity is needed to align with the way households use broadband (as in multiple devices simultaneously), and how ISPs market their services (25 Mbps as a minimum downstream acceptable).
Accessibility rates showed divergent results based on urban and rural geography. The agency reassessed what is needed in schools for students and staff. The result was a decision to redefine broadband as 25 Mbps/3 Mbps and, once the agency determined that, the landscape changed dramatically. In January, the FCC adopted the Broadband Progress Report for 2015 [PDF], which asked what is advanced telecommunications capability now and are all Americans able to access that capacity?
From the arcticle:
A recent USDA report reveals that fossil fuels are not the only thing booming in North Dakota. The state ranked 47 for population is ranked number 1 as having the highest percentage of people with access to FTTH.
According to a Telecompetitor article, their status can be attributed to an abundance of rural cooperatives and small telecom companies. These local providers have made it their business to fill the gaps left behind by large corporate ISPs that cannot justify investing in rural deployment. Given that most of North Dakota is rural, approximately 96% of the state is served by these smaller providers. The State Broadband map shows a total of 41 providers, including 17 cooperatives and 24 privately owned providers of varying size.
Another advantage to rural status? These cooperatives and small providers have qualified for USDA programs aimed at improving connectivity in sparsely populated regions. The report notes that the USDA has invested $338 million in grants and loans in North Dakota through its various telecommunications programs.
The report also profiles the importance of the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), a collaboration among many of the rural providers that criss-crosses the state with 1,460 miles of fiber backbone. The full report is available for download [PDF].
In 2012, we shared the story of the extensive network deployed by Dickey Rural Network (DRN) and Dakota Central Telecommuncations (DCT) cooperatives. DCT has produced a video about the benefits of the collaboration:
This week in Community Broadband networks... partnerships, cooperatives, and going-it-alone. For a background in muni networks, check out this recent article from FiscalNote. The article highlights Kansas and Utah's fight for improving beyond the minimum speeds.
Speaking of minimum, the FCC announced its new "rock bottom" for regulated broadband speeds. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports that despite AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecom Association's protests, ISPs that use government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads.
Rural Americans should not be left behind those who live in big cities, the FCC announcement today said. "According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service," the FCC said.
The FCC plans to offer nearly $1.8 billion a year to carriers willing to expand service to 5 million rural Americans.
This is a step in the right direction, but we are alarmed to see a download:upload ratio of 10:1. People in rural areas need to upload as well as download - our comments to the FCC strongly recommended raising the upstream threshold as well and we are very disappointed to see that remain a pathetic 1 Mbps.
And, from TechDirt's own "who can you trust if you can't trust the phone company department," Karl Bode found that a study by the AT&T-funded Progressive Policy Institute concluded that if Title II regulations were passed, the nation would be "awash in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. Bode writes that the study cherry-picked and conflated data:
The idea here behind spreading broadband to America`s rural areas is the same one behind the rural electrification program from the 1930s. The idea that even if it`s not profitable for private industry to extend the basics of modern economic life, electric light then and the Internet now, even if it`s never going to be profitable to some private company to extend those things to every last home down every long dirt road in America, it is worth it to America, worth it to us, that everybody has access to those things. That we`re all plugged in. It is the right kind of jobs investment for the country to put people to work laying those lines and connecting those Americans to the grid and it is the right things to do for the rural parts of the country so that people and businesses in every part of the country can compete economically.Extremely glad to see Rachel devoting time to this important issue.